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‘Explosiveness was not our problem,’ Panthers’ Greg Olsen says. So what is it?

Greg Olsen is old enough to have seen opposing defenses come full circle on how to best play the Carolina Panthers offense.

And so eight years after it happened the first time, here we are again. Olsen and the other receivers, along with quarterback Cam Newton, are now entrusted with resurrecting the Panthers’ offense through the air.

“It’s hard to run the ball with 8-9 guys in the box,” said Olsen after Carolina’s 20-14 loss to Tampa Bay Thursday dropped the Panthers to 0-2. “That’s why you’ve got to win in the passing game. You’ve got to be way more efficient passing the ball. It starts with us getting open, catching the ball, making tough catches.”

In 2011, when both Newton and Olsen were brand new to the Panthers, the very early book on the Carolina offense was to make Newton prove he could make NFL throws. Teams were scared of the quarterback’s running ability — he had scored 20 rushing TDs while winning the Heisman Trophy in his lone season at Auburn.

So in the first two games of his NFL career, against Arizona and Green Bay, Newton threw for 422 and 432 yards against defenses that often played eight men near the line of scrimmage. The yardage totals were astonishing, although they both came in losses. It’s also worth noting Newton has never reached the 400-yard plateau again (in 123 more regular-season games).

Teams adjusted, playing a more balanced defense against Newton.

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Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton holds onto the top of his helmet after being sacked Thursday. Although Newton threw for 333 yards, he couldn’t personally generate a rushing or passing touchdown for the fourth straight game dating back to 2018. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

But now the eight-man boxes and man-to-man defenses are back in a big way. This time it’s because Carolina has another dynamic threat in the backfield — not Newton, but Christian McCaffrey. The third-year player should threaten his stated goal of a thousand yards both rushing and receiving in 2019, and he ran for 128 yards in Carolina’s opener against Los Angeles.

So Thursday night, the Buccaneers loaded up against McCaffrey and dared Newton, Olsen and the rest to beat them in the passing game . And Carolina couldn’t.

Despite Newton throwing for 333 yards, the quarterback couldn’t get Carolina into the end zone a single time. Newton completed only 49 percent of his passes. He hasn’t accounted for a rushing or passing touchdown himself in two games this year (and is touchdown-less in four straight games, if you go back to 2018).

But the long passes? Those weren’t the problem this time around.

“Actually, we had a lot of explosive plays, right?” Olsen said, noting that the Panthers had passing plays of 41 and 33 yards Thursday (both to Olsen) and 44 and 24 yards to Curtis Samuel. “Explosiveness was not our problem. You’ve got to sustain drives in this league. One 35-40 yard catch to get you down there — OK. The next part was the problem. It was the sustaining of drives that was our problem.”

Olsen personally had a big day. His 110-yard receiving night marked his first 100-yard receiving game since 2017. With 7,993 career receiving yards, Olsen is quietly crafting a resume that will get Pro Football Hall of Fame consideration one day. He moved past Jackie Smith and Ozzie Newsome on Thursday night for fifth place in NFL history for receiving yards by a tight end. Even though Troy Aikman said on TV early Thursday night that Olsen “still looks like he’s laboring a little bit” and was “not quite the same threat” as he once was.

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Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen had a team-high 110 receiving yards in Thursday night’s 20-14 loss to Tampa Bay. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

But Olsen has always been about a lot more than his own stats, and he’s as frustrated as anyone right now. Newton said after the game it was hard to look the Panthers’ defensive players in the eyes after Carolina’s offensive failures.

“How many drives did we go 50 yards and either punt or kick a field goal?” asked Olsen, who also had his nose bloodied during the game and at first thought it was broken. “It’s just bad ball, man. Bad red zone. Penalties, missed plays, drive-killers — you’re not going to win in this league.”

As for Newton’s lack of involvement in the rushing game – the quarterback has a total of minus-2 rushing yards in two games – Olsen said: “There’s a million different storylines we can galvanize, try to create, from being 0-2. I don’t blame you. There’s a billion of them.”

However, Olsen didn’t comment directly on Newton’s lack of running, other than to say he thought the fourth-and-1 call on Carolina’s final play — a direct snap to McCaffrey — was a good call in that scenario.

It’s obvious, however, that the Panthers can’t or won’t run Newton. Until and if that changes, it leaves Newton as more or less a one-dimensional quarterback — as I have written before, he’s currently playing like a less accurate version of former Panther Steve Beuerlein.

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Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen (88) now ranks fifth all-time in receiving yards by an NFL tight end.. He has fought foot injuries each of the past two years and so far this season has had his back tighten up on him in Week 1 and received a bloody nose in Week 2. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Olsen, who at age 34 is the oldest Panthers player, has played on plenty of teams that have started 0-2 before. He recognizes that “the odds are against you” at this point. In fact, NFL teams that start 0-2 only have about a 1-in-10 chance at making the playoffs.

“The thing about the NFL is nobody cares,” Olsen said. “Nobody feels bad for you. Nobody feels sorry for you… They don’t care if you’re hurt. They don’t care if you don’t feel good. You have a bad call. Play goes against you? No one cares. You’ve got to play. You’ve got to win.”

The Panthers’ players got the weekend off and will return to the stadium Tuesday, preparing for consecutive road games against Arizona and Houston.

“We have a long weekend where you can kind of lick your wounds,” Olsen said. “And we’ve got to rally.”

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for the Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also is the host of the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth.”
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