SAN FRANCISCO – He’s the dependable one, the target that is seemingly always open when Cam Newton needs somewhere to throw.
He’s all about reliability, which is a large part of the reason Newton is able to generate far more exciting descriptions about everything he does on a football field.
Greg Olsen is perfectly happy with this mostly quiet, but effective role. It has served him well, as evidenced by his 1,000-plus receiving yards in each of the past two seasons (including a career-best 1,104 in 2015 that was second among NFL tight ends), and back-to-back Pro Bowl selections. It has served the Carolina Panthers well, too. They wouldn’t be playing in Super Bowl 50 Sunday without the man responsible for nearly 50 percent of a passing game that lost its best receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, to a knee injury before the season even began.
No one calls Olsen the greatest tight end in NFL history, a title often connected with New England’s Rob Gronkowski, who led all tight ends in the league with 1,176 yards in receptions. No one talks about Olsen in terms of fun-loving, off-field antics that are a staple of the Gronk life.
All Olsen does – in his own, quiet way – is come through for people the way he comes through for Newton and his teammates.
Just ask the two dozen families in the Carolinas that have benefitted from his HEARTest Yard Fund, which he set up for those impacted by hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS), a rare congenital birth defect that affects blood flow through the heart. Donations of $25,000 to $30,000 of nursing care to each family are one way Olsen and his wife, Kara, pay it forward after their son, T.J., was diagnosed with the HLHS in 2012, Olsen’s second season with the Panthers. Olsen wound up with Carolina after the Chicago Bears, who selected him in the first round from Miami in 2007, made one of the all-time dumb trades by shipping him there for a measly third-round choice. Now, as Olsen prepares to play in the Super Bowl, he feels a sense of gratification after all of those wild twists and turns that have led him here.
“It’s been a long journey,” he told reporters earlier in the week. “We’ve gone through some things personally, professionally. Changing teams and everything we went through there with our family, and personally, with our son, this would be a great exclamation point on an interesting and kind of up-and-down few years for us.
“It’s been a great year for us personally and now, professionally, we have a chance to make it truly special.”
The best news of all for the Olsens is that T.J., now 3½, is doing very well after multiple surgical procedures. Those endless nights when Greg struggled to find comfort for his 6-foot-6, 254-pound frame in hospital recliners as he and his wife agonized over the uncertainty of their son’s fate are a distant memory.
Olsen knows just how lucky he is. There were too many other times in the waiting room at Charlotte’s Levine Children’s Hospital when he found himself trying to console other fathers who had lost their children.
Being there for others. It’s what Olsen does.
The same goes for serving as the second-most important cog in the Panthers’ offense. When the play calls for Olsen to run a pass route – as is routinely the case in the game plan of coordinator Mike Shula – he needs to separate from the defender and provide Newton that window to complete a pass. He needs to hang onto the ball. He needs to pick up yards. He needs to move the chains and/or score.
Newton is confident that Olsen will do all of those things all of the time – or, at least, most of the time.
“I think we have good chemistry,” said Olsen, who led the Panthers with 77 receptions in the regular season and leads them in the postseason with 12 catches for 190 yards and a touchdown. “I think we understand what each other are thinking. I think we understand what each other are looking for and I know, in crucial situations when Cam really needs to make a play, I try to be a guy that he can rely on. When that huddle breaks, barring a bad look or barring something happening, there’s a good chance that if I get open he’s going to come my way. I take great pride in that. I take great responsibility in being that guy for this team.”
Shula calls Olsen “one of the smartest players” he has ever coached.
“He gets everything about the game,” the coach said. “He understands how to find an edge each and every week. He communicates very well. He is great with Cam, and he tries to make sure he is going to do everything possible each week to be prepared, not leave any stone unturned, and I think that has showed up on game day.”
“I feel like in my nine years, I’ve approached the game the same way year-in and year-out,” Olsen said. “I feel like my production and my consistency speaks for itself. Nothing changed with my preparation going into the season. Obviously, losing Kelvin was a huge blow for us. But I think it goes back to the epitome of what we are as a group or what we are as a team and guys understanding about buying in and perfecting their roles. And here we are in the Super Bowl, without maybe some of the glamorous or profiled names at receiver and tight end. But we feel we’ll put our production and our group against anybody.”
There are no prescribed number of targets that he or anyone else demands. Carolina goes into every game with a multiple approach designed to keep opposing defenses guessing. It had the NFL’s second-best running game in 2015 because of the combination of talented running backs, a solid offensive line, a commitment to pound the ball and Newton, the league’s top rushing quarterback.
Yet, on third down or whenever it’s needed the most, there is usually Newton to Olsen. It’s money, especially when Newton is buying time with his feet and route-running becomes improvisational.
“I think our production speaks for itself,” Olsen said. “We’re as productive as any quarterback-tight end combo in the league the last handful of years. We’re very familiar with one another. We spend a lot of time together. We spend a lot of time at practice. Not necessarily just during the practice, but in between periods talking things through, trying to get an understanding of what each other are expecting.
“My goal every week is to see things through his eyes. I’ve got to be where he wants me to be, make the adjustments that he wants me to make. If you can do that, you’re going to be in a friendly position and the quarterback trusts you.”
To establish that trust, no detail can be considered too small. Constant conversations must occur about what went right but, especially, about what went wrong. Different situations that could arise in “the heat of the game” must be anticipated and accompanied by an answer.
“You might only get one crack at it in this league,” Olsen said. “Trying to make corrections on the fly and say, ‘We’ll get it next time,’ is hard. I try to be friendly, I try to be reliable.”
That is the essence of Greg Olsen, on and off the field.