Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera has refused to use a word for this year’s offensive line injury situation that he did two years ago: “catastrophe.”
But what about “cursed”?
Injuries have forced Carolina’s line to reshuffle 14 times in 34 regular-season games from 2016-18. Quarterback Cam Newton has started games behind five different left tackles, three different centers, four different right tackles, two different left guards and five different right guards during that time.
The Panthers began the 2018 season by putting starting left tackle Matt Kalil and starting right tackle Daryl Williams on injured reserve, within about a week.
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Now, the Panthers have second-year player Taylor Moton at right tackle (he started Week 1 on the left) and third-string center Greg Van Roten at left guard. Backup center Tyler Larsen is at right guard because All-Pro guard Trai Turner was in the concussion protocol as of Friday morning.
And 32-year-old left tackle Chris Clark?
He was signed last Wednesday, and told to get on a plane to Charlotte before the sweat had even dried from the afternoon workout he did in Houston.
“I met him Wednesday, he started Sunday,” Newton said dryly this week, eliciting laughs from a crowd of reporters.
But, as Newton added seriously, Clark “played his (bleep) off.”
In fact, all of the linemen did in Sunday’s 31-24 loss to Atlanta. There were a couple of bumps, including two sacks and a few quarterback hits, but considering the circumstances, Newton was kept remarkably clean.
Part of that was because of adjustments in play-calling made by offensive coordinator Norv Turner.
But the biggest factor in Sunday’s offensive line performance happened behind closed doors at Bank of America Stadium last week.
The anchor, back from injury
Veteran center Ryan Kalil has watched the offensive line sort through disorder for over two years.
He’s even been a part of it. He hurt his neck and shoulder in 2016, which was a catalytic point in the Panthers’ Rivera-named “position catastrophe” after Michael Oher’s concussion.
Backup Gino Gradkowski injured his knee shortly after, and the Panthers literally signed free agent center/guard Larsen out of his dad’s basement to take over as starting center.
Kalil never quite fully recovered in 2017, and Larsen took the bulk of the snaps. This spring, though relatively healthy, Kalil announced his intent to retire after the 2018 season, after 10 years in the NFL, five Pro Bowls and two All-Pro nods.
More injuries have continued to shake up the line, but Kalil so far hasn’t missed a snap in two starts.
And he has looked like his old self out on the field. Rivera said this week that he’s been a “stabilizing force” on a line awash in chaos.
But Kalil feels ... older. He half-joked a few weeks ago that he can’t eat his mom’s apple pie anymore because of his 33-year-old metabolism. He sighed a moment later as he revealed that it now takes him every minute of every day leading up to a Sunday game to recover from the week before.
“I think it’s just a reminder of our mortality, that we’re not invincible,” he told the Observer on Wednesday. “That the game doesn’t care how hard you work, or how much you care.”
It certainly hasn’t cared about the bedeviled state of Carolina’s line.
But Kalil isn’t one to believe in curses or catastrophes. He’s more solution-oriented.
“It’s tough. It’s part of the game. Every now and then it reminds you,” he said. “It’s something that you can’t think too much about, and you have to figure out a way to move forward. Because if you start sort of thinking too much about guys who aren’t in, it’s counter-productive. I don’t think it does anything to help us move forward.”
So how will Carolina continue to adjust?
Like last week, a big part of it will be on the shoulders of Kalil.
Hiding the blemishes
Carolina’s play-calling last Sunday, according to Turner, emphasized Newton getting the ball out quicker than he ever has on underneath routes and check-down passes, to alleviate pressure on the line.
The offensive line also over-communicated, to a man. Clark got a lot of instruction from Van Roten and Kalil, sometimes loudly and obviously enough to be overheard by the Falcons’ defensive line.
The Panthers’ linemen could still disguise their calls by way of their snap and hard counts, but not by much. Yet it was better to be more vocal than usually acceptable than for a player to miss the assignment entirely.
Because that would bring the whole line down.
“One guy can’t move without the other,” said Clark this week. “One guy misses his block, we’re all wrong. At the end of the day, we’re like a fist. All five guys together. As long as we’re on the same page it doesn’t matter if the defense knows our calls..”
Sometimes, Kalil laughed, they would simplify a call down to just telling Clark who he had to block.
“And then we’d move on,” he said.
Clark is an extremely intelligent veteran tackle with a lot of starting experience. But four days was simply not enough time to learn what an offensive line cultivates through months of meetings, in film sessions and in the position group dinners the Panthers’ linemen like to organize, much to the apprehension of Charlotte restaurants.
“It’s a hard adjustment, a very hard adjustment,” Clark said. “Offensive line is like the quarterback of the offense at times. We have to see it all, scan the field just like a quarterback. It’s a tough deal.”
Assimilating, as an offensive lineman, to a new playbook is like learning a new language, Kalil said. Each of the league’s 32 offensive lines has its own code words, signals and dialect that correspond to the game plan each week.
So when Clark arrived, Kalil took it upon himself to act as a translator. He spent extra time last week in the tackles’ playbooks, so that he could better communicate Carolina’s terminologies and calls to Clark.
“It wasn’t always pretty, the communication stuff. I’d like to sit here and tell you that it was perfect and that I orchestrated the whole thing,” Kalil laughed. “But a lot of guys helped out.”
But Clark gives Kalil a ton of credit.
“To be around a guy like that, All-Pro, Pro-Bowl type of guy, it’s amazing,” Clark said. “Him just leading us is huge. Last week, he did an awesome job with that. He made sure we were on the same page at all times and it’s trickling over this week.”
Character over curses
With just 10 days together, the Panthers’ offensive line will face one of the toughest tests of the year at 1 p.m. on Sunday, against Cincinnati’s stout, athletic defensive line.
When tallying up the injuries from the outside, the Panthers’ offensive line seems to need exorcism-level assistance.
But on the inside?
Nobody seems to be flinching.
“There’s no easy way around it. It’s a physically brutal game, (and) there’s nothing you can do about it,” Kalil said. “I think the most important thing is spending time with your depth. I think a team is only as good as the bottom part of their roster. And so I think we do a good job in spending a lot of time with our depth.”
Kalil said that run game coordinator John Matsko and assistant offensive line coach Travelle Wharton use every possible legal minute they have with players to maximize lessons. They stay after practice with backups, working through blocking techniques.
“They come early in the morning. They spend a ton of time watching film. They go over extra in our walkthroughs,” Kalil said, adding that most of the time Matsko and Wharton are coaching up players nobody has ever heard of with the expectation that they’ll play a role.
“We don’t leave any stone unturned,” Kalil said. “We utilize every second we’re allowed to in this building. And the guys have a ton of pride in doing it, and especially the coaches. They do a great job.”
But Carolina’s offensive line room takes it a step further.
Kalil said that the veterans in the room are able to be “vocal with management” about the types of personalities they want to bring in, because no other position on the team is as dependent on each other.
“Honestly, if we had a guy who came in here who was physically talented but didn’t fit with our group we have voiced that pretty well,” he said. “I think they’ve done a pretty good job in bringing in the right kind of guys — just good people who work hard and treat people right, and take care of one another.”
It was certainly a benefit that Clark turned out to be the type of guy who could play well at left tackle against the Falcons before even fully unpacking his suitcase. But it was just as crucial to the guys he lined up with that, when Clark was asked by coaches midgame if he needed a break, he declined and played every offensive snap.
That showed his teammates something important.
“As long as we continue to think that way up front, when something does happen and someone does go down, we don’t miss a beat,” said Kalil. “And nobody is panicking. Because we have that confidence in the guys.”