GOING IN BLIND
This is an article from the Sept. 7, 2015 issue
Was it time to panic? In his first padded practice of training camp, Michael Oher suffered a mild case of windburn, with Carolina defenders beating him soundly three times in individual drills. This was verging on a worst-case scenario for Panthers GM Dave Gettleman, whose solution for last year's abysmal left-tackle play was to sign Oher to a two-year, $7 million deal—this despite the fact that the seven-year vet out of Ole Miss has struggled in recent seasons to be even a serviceable tackle, yielding 103 pressures in his last 28 starts. The Titans cut ties with him last February—less than a year after signing him to a four-year deal. Playing right tackle for Tennessee, he'd often floundered, finishing the season at No. 75 out of 84 tackles in Pro Football Focus's positional rankings.
Show a little faith. Have some patience. Take it easy on the big guy. This was the message from Carolina coach Ron Rivera following Oher's underwhelming—even alarming—training camp debut. Rivera pointed out that, after two seasons at right tackle, Oher (on whom the book and movie The Blind Side were based) had flopped back to the blind side. As a result of that move, "He was a little bit rusty coming out of his stance," noted Rivera, "but as practice went on and he started getting into the team events, I thought he looked really good."
In the intervening weeks Rivera has been proved right. Oher settled in, and has looked more comfortable at left tackle. He appeared solid in several series against Buffalo in Carolina's preseason opener, stalemating a pair of superb pass rushers, Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes.
Oher's return to the blind side seems to have been smoothed by Carolina offensive line coach John Matsko, who held that title for the Ravens from 2008 through '10. Oher has a high comfort level with Matsko, who mentored him in '09 when he made the NFL all-rookie team and earned a plus-20.0 overall grade from Pro Football Focus—the last time he's been in positive integers.
Much is riding on Oher's ability to reverse that trajectory. This off-season the Panthers went all-in on fifth-year quarterback Cam Newton, signing him to a five-year, $103.8 million deal ($60 million guaranteed, the sixth-most lucrative at the position). It should be money well spent: Newton's combination of size, speed and arm strength make him—when he has time—one of the NFL's most versatile, dangerous players.
That is, when he's not being pounded into steak tartare. In his first four seasons Newton absorbed an ungodly 587 shots—sacks or hits—which is almost twice as many as the next-closest piñata (Seattle's Russell Wilson, with 317). Yes, number 1 needs to find the sideline more often on his forays outside the pocket. He will also need help from Oher.
Matsko has experience with reclamation projects. Poor line play—slipshod protection, in particular—had much to do with the Panthers' ghastly 1-8-1 stretch from mid-September through November last season. With Matsko feverishly juggling line combinations (Carolina went through seven of them between Weeks 6 and 13), he settled, finally, on the right five guys. The Panthers won their final four games and the NFC South.
Two key pieces to that puzzle were undrafted. Right tackle Mike Remmers is playing for his sixth team in four seasons; the former Oregon State walk-on was toiling on the Rams' practice squad when the desperate Panthers signed him off waivers two days before Halloween, plugging him into their starting lineup three games later. In five games Remmers yielded only five quarterback pressures and no sacks. Another revelation: Andrew Norwell, an undrafted rookie out of Ohio State, who came on in relief of injured starter (and fellow rookie) Trai Turner in Week 7. A surprisingly effective downfield blocker, Norwell has made up for his lack of technical prowess by being relentless, loud and nasty.
The unit's cornerstone is center Ryan Kalil, a four-time Pro Bowler who expressed his relief, at the start of training camp, that the line appears far more stable than it did this time a year ago: "We're in a lot better place this year than we were last year."
Just how much better a place will depend upon whether Oher can find some of his old form, and salvage his career. And if he can stay on the field: His designated backup, 49ers cast-off Jonathan Martin, abruptly retired in the off-season, and the options aren't great behind him. Should Oher go down, it might just be time for the Panthers to panic.
SI'S PREDICTION: 9--7
ANDY BENOIT ON WHAT CAM NEWTON NEEDS TO SUCCEED
This off-season the Panthers committed to Cam Newton (above) in two very telling ways. One was obvious: a new five-year contract. The other was more subtle: the second-round selection of Devin Funchess. At 6'4" and 225 pounds, the Michigan receiver is very similar to last year's first-round pick, 6'5", 245-pound Kelvin Benjamin (who tore his left ACL in training camp and will miss the season). Both are possession targets with—and here's the key—a wide catching radius. Consider this Carolina's tacit admission that Newton, with his unsteady mechanics and proclivity for strong-arming the ball, will likely never become a precision or anticipatory passer. So whereas most teams would need at least some speed and quickness at wide receiver, the Panthers are fine with having only size. This is also true at tight end: Greg Olsen moves well, but his game is predicated on his being 6'6", 253 pounds. Typically, Newton's sort of inconsistency would be grounds for a discussion, at least, about a quarterback change. But he makes the occasional Wow! throw, and his mobility alters the equation. Not only is he a chains-moving scrambler, he's also the engine of the multifaceted zone-read ground game that defines this offense.