Greg Olsen has well-informed opinions, which is part of the reason he’s been such a natural in the broadcast booth. Olsen has a particular interest in the Carolina Panthers, his team for nine of his 14 NFL seasons and the one he still follows closely.
Olsen has plenty of thoughts on what’s gone wrong for the Panthers for the past six seasons, last week’s hires of head coach Dave Canales and general manager Dan Morgan and Bryce Young’s future.
Greg Olsen ready ready for ‘entire spectrum of opportunities’
The Fox analyst and former tight end shared his views on those topics and others with The Athletic on Tuesday as part of a media blitz for his Feb. 26 charity event at Charlotte’s Steak 48 for his HEARTest Yard initiative, which supports families of children with congenital heart disease like Olsen’s oldest son, TJ.
Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Dave Canales was with you in the tight end room in Seattle (in 2020). I know he has a lot of energy and has done good things with Geno Smith and Baker Mayfield, but he hasn’t done it very long (as a coordinator). Any concerns?
I really like Dave. I got to spend a full season with him. He spent every single day in our tight ends room. He was the passing game coordinator. My understanding is in the years prior, he spent time in different rooms. I think that was part of him learning different positions and continuing to build. I think that was the philosophy him and Pete Carroll had as far as expanding him as a coach. We both love talking ball. We love trading ideas. He was very open-minded and very smart. He’s got a lot of energy. He’s ultra-positive. That’s kind of like their trademark there (in Seattle). That’s Pete. When he got the job in Tampa to go be the offensive coordinator, I was really happy for him. He had gotten passed up a few times for a promotion to offensive coordinator in Seattle. I think he was ready to spread his wings and be on a different staff and a different perspective and be able to make his impact. I think he did a good job. Helping Tampa Bay get to the playoffs was no small feat. I thought he made Baker play as well as Baker’s played maybe his entire career.
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The question a lot of people have is: Do the Panthers have an ownership problem? They’re expected to bring in (Kansas City executive) Brandt Tilis as a buffer. Is David Tepper too involved in the day-to-day football?
The hardest thing to evaluate about everything that’s gone on over the last couple of years is I don’t know really who’s making what decisions. He’s kind of done this back-and-forth (approach). We hired a head coach. We held over Marty (Hurney). Then Marty left and we brought in (Scott) Fitterer. Then we let (Matt) Rhule go but we kept Fitterer. And then we brought in Frank Reich. So I don’t know if anybody can really fairly assess who made what decisions, where does (the blame) fall. I don’t know what decisions Dave had a heavy hand in. I don’t know what decisions were driven by Rhule. I don’t know what decisions this past year were driven by Frank. I don’t know how much the front office with Scott and Dan (Morgan) underneath him. I think there were a lot of really good football people at varying times over the last couple of years. But I’m not privy to understanding what the exact decision-making process was. If that gets cleaned up and there’s a clear line of communication and a clear line of decision-making and we understand right or wrong the buck stops where? Like who is making the final decision? I think everyone can live with that. I don’t know if we have that clear answer over the last couple of years and I’m sure that’s a big reason why they decided to start fresh and go GM and head coach simultaneously for the first time. We’ll see how it goes.
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Bryce Young struggled this season, clearly didn’t have enough playmakers or protection with the injuries up front. But should a No. 1 pick have the ability to lift up an offense and overcome those other deficiencies?
We all have these high hopes of first overall picks and they’re gonna carry the team. But there is a learning curve. Everyone wants to compare Bryce to Cam (Newton) and the impact Cam had as a rookie. People have to realize the style of play coming out of college between Cam and Bryce was wildly different. Patrick Mahomes didn’t even play as a rookie. Jordan Love didn’t even play. So there’s always this learning process. But the advantage Cam had is he was just so incredibly talented and physical. When all hell broke loose, he might not have been exactly on time with his footwork. But when it was time to let the ball rip, he could rip it to Steve Smith and make up for it. Or he could rip it to me or (Jeremy) Shockey. Or he could just take off and be 260 pounds and just run everybody over.
I think Bryce has always been a super cerebral quarterback. Everybody talks about his mentality, his approach and maturity. Those are incredibly valuable and essential for any quarterback in the NFL. But it’s going to take a little while for that to really impact. You’re not gonna outsmart the NFL. He wasn’t 6-5, 250 pounds when all hell broke loose, just put the ball down, run and we’ll figure it out later. That’s not his game. His footwork needs to be right. His timing needs to be right. The pocket needs to be right. That’s just the style that he’s played since he was in high school, and he’s been one of the best quarterbacks in high school and college and so on and so forth. He’s gonna need guys around him. He’s gonna need an offensive line. He’s gonna need a system that plays to his strengths. I think that was a little bit of a disconnect. He’s gonna need some things to go his way. But to have just an all-out indictment and say his rookie year is what he’s gonna be the rest of his career, I don’t think it’s fair. The coaching situation with what we were trying to ask him to do schematically, the personnel around him, then losing your coach halfway through the year — it was about as bad a situation for a rookie quarterback to work within. Let’s take a deep breath and see what this next year or two had before we have a clear picture.
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If you’re the GM, what are your three offseason moves for the Panthers?
Everyone gets really excited over a big-time, No. 1 receiver. We’ve seen in the playoffs, look at Green Bay. They have some young (receivers) that are crazy talented. But none of them are first-round picks. They didn’t go out and sign some big-time free agent. They have a great system. They drafted really well. Look at the Lions. Amon-Ra St. Brown’s an All-Pro player. But he wasn’t a top-5 pick. He wasn’t some high-priced guy. He’s a guy they developed. He’s a slot receiver. He’s big and strong. He’s got great intangibles and he’s playing in a very friendly offense to the skill players and the quarterbacks. I don’t think you need to panic and go out and pay $25 million to whoever the top free-agent receiver is just to check that box. I don’t think they’re one player away. I think it’s gonna be roster depth, great drafting, signing the right free agents. And then it’s going to be about coaching and playing to the strengths of the guys you already have under contract. I think you saw Ejiro Evero do that on defense this year. They developed a lot of talent on defense, a lot of guys that weren’t expected to play. And I would argue they played well above expectation. That’s coaching. That’s what the NFL is. You’re not always gonna inherit an amazing roster. You’ve got to make the best of what you have. I think that’s what Dave’s approach will be.
You were interested in the Panthers’ coaching job if they had approached you. Is that really something you would have considered or was it more of a leverage game with Fox?
It wasn’t a leverage game at all. There was never any serious talks (with the Panthers). If that was a conversation that was presented, if that was an option that was on the table, there was no question I would have been interested. It’s not something I’m chasing. I love doing what I’m doing. I feel like I can do what I’m doing for a long time and be good at it. But if the right opportunity came, especially with a connection that was close to me personally, football’s what I know. I have no question in my mind that I could do it. I would argue my 14 years in the NFL and now my subsequent years calling games, I would argue that I have as much direct involvement and knowledge and experience in football decisions, in building rosters and culture. To throw away players’ experience and say, “Well, instead of 14 years of playing experience, if you would’ve worked your way up from a quality control coach to an assistant coach, that would be more valuable,” I think is a bunch of nonsense. Sometimes experience is confused for competence.
When you and Kara started HEARTest Yard, did you ever envision you’d impact so many lives?
I don’t know what we expected. At the time everything was so fresh with TJ and we were still so much in the thick of it, it was an opportunity for us to do two things. One, fill a gap that we experienced personally — this multiple-month span (after open-heart surgery) where you had to bring your child home and care for them and get them healthier in order to go for step two. Secondly, we saw it as part of our healing process that we would be able to take a lot of positive out of what had been a really trying year or so. To see where it’s gone now — we just celebrated our 10th anniversary last spring — it’s pretty remarkable how far we’ve gone. To have an outpatient clinic bearing our foundation’s name and to know on a daily basis just the amount of families that come in and the amount of lives that we touch.
(Top photo of Dave Canales and Baker Mayfield: Cliff Welch / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)