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Kara and Greg Olsen
Kara and Greg Olsen

Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen is a three-time Pro Bowler … and now a two-time NFL Man of the Year finalist.

Olsen, Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt and Baltimore Ravens tight end Benjamin Watson on Sunday were announced as the finalists for the award named after NFL great Walter Payton that recognizes community service.

The winner will be announced Feb. 3 at the NFL Honors program in Minneapolis.

Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, recovering from a broken foot, meets and signs autographs for faithful fans for a September appearance at a Family Dollar in University City. Some of the fans explained that his work off the field is one reason they admire him.

Olsen was up for the award last year when Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald and Giants quarterback Eli Manning shared the honor.

Veteran linebacker Thomas Davis became the Panthers’ first Man of the Year winner after the 2014 season.

Olsen played in only seven games this season after breaking his foot in a Week 2 win against Buffalo. He is the first tight end in NFL history to post three consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons.

Olsen started Receptions for Research through his foundation in 2009 after his mother battled and survived breast cancer. The program has distributed more than $3.5 million since its inception.

Olsen and his wife, Kara, established the HEARTest Yard Fund in 2013 after tests revealed their unborn son, T.J., had a rare congenital heart condition called Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome.

The program provides families of babies with congenital heart disease with assistance for in-home and private nursing care, as well as physical and speech therapy.

The Olsens announced in November the expansion of the HEARTest Yard with a new cardiac neurodevelopmental program – the first and most comprehensive such program in the Southeast.

After learning he was a finalist Sunday, Olsen announced on Twitter he was launching a Man of the Year match. Olsen said he and his wife will match the first $100,000 through Feb. 4 to support families at Levine Children’s Hospital.

Watt was named one of Sports Illustrated’s Sportspersons of the Year after raising more than $37 million in three weeks for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts in Houston.

Watson, who went to high school in Rock Hill, has led efforts to combat human trafficking and violence against the poor.

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Cam Newton
Cam Newton

 

 

 

The Carolina Panthers started the 2017 season with such wild inconsistencies and on-field ticks of potential catastrophe that fans braced themselves for cardiac episodes each week.

But now, Carolina has morphed into a team that looks like it could be on the cusp of a deep postseason run.

Quarterback Cam Newton snapped us to attention against Green Bay with a cackling, confident “Watch this!” followed by a slick touchdown pass to rookie running back/receiver Christian McCaffrey, but it was a third-quarter touchdown that gave Carolina’s dramatic season yet a little more meat.

Newton and Greg Olsen ran an identical play to one they failed to complete against the Green Bay Packers in 2015, during their raucous Super Bowl run.

Olsen got a free release out of the slot and beat the safety who was, for some reason, matched with him one-on-one. This time the play was a touchdown.

The score gave Carolina the lead and the Panthers never looked back.

It’s hard to imagine this team, getting hot at the perfect time, will look back again this year.

The Panthers started the season struggling to find offensive consistency and stalled week after week in the red zone. They hit rock bottom in a 17-3 loss in Week 7 against a terrible Chicago team that scored two defensive touchdowns and didn’t do a whole lot else.

But since that day, the Panthers have won six of their past seven games. Newton has thrown two interceptions in the past seven weeks, after throwing 10 in the first seven (including two against Chicago). Carolina improved its red zone production from field goals (or worse) to a 70.83 touchdown percentage. The Panthers scored 18.7 points per game in the first seven weeks, and 28.6 since.

In fact, B.C. (Before Chicago), Carolina had averaged 97.3 rushing yards, a number that climbed to 174.4 (and from No. 21 in the league to No. 1).

And interceptions have popped, too. The Panthers had one in the first seven weeks and nine A.C. (After Chicago).

It’s also hard to remember the chaos – Newton’s injury, the mysterious neck injury of Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil, the Kelvin Benjamin trade, the loss and return of Olsen and Damiere Byrd, and the loss of second-round pick Curtis Samuel.

I turned to big-picture thinker Kurt Coleman in the locker room this week to ask: How did the 2017 Carolina Panthers go from discombobulated to dangerous?

“I feel like that’s an onion question,” he said, with a ponderous exhale, “where there are a lot of layers to it.”

Let’s try to peel them back.

Cam Newton

The reality is Newton spent half a season playing catch-up, not just with the integration of new players into the offense, but also with his own body.

Newton played one full preseason series while still healing from offseason surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff. To preserve his body, the team’s plan was to run him less and rely on quick layup passes to McCaffrey (we will get to him later).

But without Newton’s legs as a factor, opposing defenses stopped seeing him as a two-dimensional weapon for the Panthers and keyed in on him in the pocket (while taking advantage of injuries to Kalil and new left tackle Matt Kalil). Perhaps the grimmest reality for Newton on the field came when Saints pass-rusher Cam Jordan all but scoffed at Newton following a Week 3 drubbing, saying that the quarterback was “clearly trying to be more of a pocket passer, and I’m OK with that.”

But as Newton got healthier, he factored his legs back in. McCaffrey and Stewart are also sharing the load more efficiently as Carolina has spread out the defenders in front of them (we will also get to that later). And Newton is back to having a blast on the field.

“And now I think he’s feeling himself,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “He’s feeling a lot better and it doesn’t take as much for him to recover. So you see him more engaged as opposed to having him have to work at getting ready for the next day, getting rid of the soreness so he’s ready to go.”

Linebacker Luke Kuechly has a phrase for that.

“Cam is in ‘Cam Mode’ now,” he said, grinning widely, this week. “And we’re pretty excited about that.”

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After back-to-back, full-workload days, the only thing between Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen and his return to the football field is a couple of nights’ sleep.

“Yeah, the response obviously to putting this much volume on it two days in a row is the concern,” said Olsen on Thursday afternoon.

“But we’ve had no indications that it’s going to be a problem. So as far as I’m concerned right now, just trying to get my legs under me a bit, get that football movement stuff going a little bit. But yeah, I’m doing well.”

Olsen also does not expect his in-game workload to differ any from when he was healthy. He said he is preparing as if he will get a “normal” amount of looks.

“I always anticipate that I’m going to play every snap, just from a mindset standpoint,” he said. “And however the game plays out is fine.”

Carolina could officially activate Olsen off of injured reserve at any time before Sunday. Final injury reports for the week come out on Friday, and actives and inactives are released 90 minutes before the start of each game.

But barring a setback, it seems Olsen will suit up for the first time since he broke his foot in Week 2.

What might be a little more concerning is nickel cornerback Captain Munnerlyn’s illness. If it were a one-day absence, Rivera might not be worried, but Munnerlyn missed a second consecutive workout on Thursday.

There is no go-to option at backup nickel for Munnerlyn, as draft pick Corn Elder and undrafted free agent pickup Cole Luke are both on injured reserve and are not designated for return.

Corner Kevon Seymour might play the position if Munnerlyn is unable, or Carolina may stick with linebacker Shaq Thompson in the hybrid “Buffalo” nickel role throughout Sunday’s game against the New York Jets.

Panthers starting center Ryan Kalil and backup Tyler Larsen were also limited, although Larsen was more a precautionary move.

Quarterback Cam Newton was also limited for a second day, with soreness in his right thumb. He has been wearing a fingerless compression glove on his throwing hand.