SAN JOSE, Calif.
Not all that long ago, Greg Olsen’s football goals were far more modest than they are today. When he was growing up in the New Jersey suburb of Wayne, his biggest dream was to play on the Wayne Hills High School team coached by his father.
“Growing up in a program where I was the water boy and then I was the ball boy, and then I was a freshman, all I ever wanted to do was play varsity football for my dad’s team,” Olsen said. “It’s some of the fondest memories that I have in my football career.”
Olsen wound up helping his father, Chris, win a New Jersey state championship in 2002, a dream come true for the young tight end. But that was just the start. He went on to a standout career at Miami, was a first-round draft pick of the Bears in 2007, was traded to the Panthers in 2011 and has emerged as one of the NFL’s best tight ends.
In his last two seasons, the 6-6, 255-pound Olsen has totaled 161 catches for 2,112 yards and 13 touchdowns. He clearly is Cam Newton’s most dangerous receiving threat.
“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, and I think a lot of that comes from playing with one another. 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 is 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.”
The trust is complete.
“I don’t think Greg gets a lot of credit for his football awareness,” Newton said. “He’s extremely good at that. A lot of times on the field, he does a great job with just finding ways to get open. Of course, the route concepts go however they’re made, but I scramble and I step up, and when he senses that I have trouble, he finds a way to get open.
“I think that’s a credit to him having the lineage of football expertise in his past being coached by his father. It just goes to show you football has been in him for a long time. It shows each and every time we go out there.”
It may be hard to believe now, especially after seeing the chemistry between Newton and Olsen, but there was a time when Olsen was looked at as more of a problem than a solution.
In 2010, while Olsen still was with the Bears, offensive coordinator Mike Martz didn’t see him as a good fit with Jay Cutler. Martz preferred to have Cutler use deep dropbacks and throw more to his wide receivers, and he convinced general manager Jerry Angelo that Olsen wasn’t right for the offense.
So Angelo traded Olsen to the Panthers for a third-round pick in 2011, the same year the Panthers drafted Newton No. 1 overall. Angelo, whom the Bears eventually fired, called the trade one of his biggest mistakes.
And here is Olsen, one win away from winning the Super Bowl for the first time and putting his stamp on the Panthers’ offense and the local community in Charlotte. Olsen’s charity, “T.J.’s HEARTest Yard,” benefits children who have the same severe congenital heart defect as his son. T.J. Olsen underwent open heart surgery in 2014 and is doing well.
“It’s been a long journey,” Olsen said. “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 Panthers’ Greg Olsen is one of four tight ends to have a 1,000-yard season in 2015:
Player, team Yards
Rob Gronkowski, NE 1,176
Greg Olsen, Caro. 1,104
Delanie Walker, Tenn. 1,088
Gary Barnidge, Cleve. 1,043