CHARLOTTE — The Carolina Panthers opened the 2018 season with a 16-8 win over Dallas at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday. The losses the team suffered in the game, however, could play a large role as the year goes on.
For the second consecutive season, All-Pro tight end Greg Olsen went down with a foot injury in the Panthers’ home opener. Last year, Olsen broke the foot in Week Two and went on injured reserve. He returned in Week 12 but left the game early after aggravating the injury.
On Sunday, Olsen appeared to be ready to assume his spot as quarterback Cam Newton’s top target. He caught two of Newton’s first four completions, gaining 33 yards in the first quarter.
Olsen left the game a short time later, however, after suffering an undisclosed injury in the same foot. He was on crutches and wearing a protective boot on the sideline during the second half and left the locker room without speaking to the media.
“It means a lot,” said veteran receiver Torrey Smith, who had one catch for 15 yards in his Panthers debut. “That’s Cam’s blankie. They have a different type of chemistry. It’s his security blanket.”
Newton, who finished the day 17 of 26 for 161 yards and 58 yards rushing, was concerned about the potential loss of Olsen, who, entering last season, had caught one out of every four passes Newton completed in his NFL career.
“You guys know how I feel about Greg,” he said. “You can’t ever replace him — the professionalism he brings to the game, his overall IQ and preparation.”
While no one in the locker room would speculate on how long Olsen would be out, Newton admitted, “You hear whispers,” and the team seemed to be preparing for a long absence.
“It means a lot to the offense and team leadership,” Smith said. “It’s going to be a huge loss if he’s going to be out an extended period of time. It’s next man up. That’s the way it is in the NFL.”
Assuming Olsen is out, it will fall on rookie tight end Ian Thomas and third-year pro Chris Manhertz to pick up the slack at tight end. Thomas had two catches for four yards in the opener.
“We’ll have to work harder as receivers and pick up the load,” Smith said. “The younger guys — Ian — are going to get opportunities. It changes the offense a little bit.”
“Ian has been prepared for this moment,” Newton said, although he also called on the front office to “bring someone in.”
The Panthers also had another case of injury déjà vu, late in the game, when right tackle Darryl Williams went down with a knee injury. Williams injured the knee early in training camp and surprised observers by returning to practice for game week.
He started the game but had to be carted off the field in the fourth quarter. Like Olsen’s status, the team seemed pessimistic about the likelihood of having Williams in the near future.
“It’s always tough,” Smith said. “It’s literally a 100 percent injury rate. Do you feel good enough to play on Sunday? But it’s tough, after what happened to him in camp and how hard he fought to get back.”
“I hope it’s not as bad as it seemed,” Newton added. “This is the NFL. Injuries do happen. The severity of the injuries, we don’t know.”