The most stable position grouping on the Carolina Panthers, aside from quarterback, is offensive line. Despite injuries that once again forced the coaching staff to shuffle the deck some last fall, the unit still turned in a solid season and holds a bright future.
Former starters Jeff Otah missed most of the season while Geoff Schwartz and Gary Williams didn’t play a single down. But veteran Geoff Hangartner and surprising rookie Byron Bell solidified a group anchored by an All-Pro and another worthy of such distinction.
For their effort, Carolina’s two main tailbacks – DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart – each averaged 5.4 yards per rushing attempt this past season. Quarterback Cam Newton, who is known to take off running from time to time, averaged 5.6 yards per carry. And even with Newton setting an NFL rookie passing mark (4,051 yards), the Panthers ran for more touchdowns (26) than they threw for (21).
The point of attack starts with any offensive line in the middle. The center has the duties of reading defenses, barking signals, snapping the ball on the right count and then blocking. In Ryan Kalil, Carolina has the consummate professional who is a tone setter for the group.
Offensive lines must have chemistry in order to develop into an effective group. They must trust each other so nobody cheats to help out a less trusted mate. Kalil establishes a mindset among the group that is clearly infectious. He’s started 60 games over the last four seasons and has been to a few Pro Bowls.
Kalil has a big fan in head coach Ron Rivera.
“What we do as an offense starts with the center, in terms of blocking for run and pass. That’s very important,” Rivera said. “At the point of attack, he controls the blocking schemes four our offensive line, helping to identify which way the offensive line is going in terms of their protections and what they have to do. In this system, that’s not an easy thing. Plus, he blocked very well this season.”
Jordan Gross was again an anchor at tackle. Another true professional, Gross has started all 135 games he’s played for the Panthers. He and Kalil served vital roles in teaching Newton how to be a professional athlete this past season, and their welcoming of the rookie was key in allowing the entire unit to jell as quickly as it did.
Veteran guard Geoff Hangartner was a boon to the group. A seven-year player, who spent the previous two campaigns with Buffalo after playing in Charlotte for four seasons, Hangartner started all 16 games and immediately fit in, helping the unit gain a measure of chemistry.
Travelle Wharton started every game at the other guard spot and has started 99 games in eight seasons as a Panther.
Rookie Byron Bell out of New Mexico wasn’t drafted but he quickly caught the staff’s eye and eventually became a starter for the team’s last 12 contests. Bell’s quick ascent in some ways was emblematic of the offense as a whole. He caught on quickly and kept improving.
This group remained pretty much intact all season, and the more they played together, the more balanced attack Carolina put on the field every Sunday. Those rushing figures were the result of that balance.
“To know that you have guys running for that type of average, obviously you’re blocking well,” Rivera said.
Mackenzy Bernadeau backed up nicely this year and will return. Geoff Schwartz started every game in 2010 but missed last season with a hip injury.
Otah missed 12 games this past fall because of a knee injury, and he’s played in just 29 games because of injuries. He missed all of the 2010 season. Gary Williams started 11 games in 2010 but didn’t play a snap last fall because of a sprained left ankle. Rookie Lee Ziemba from Auburn will have an opportunity to add depth next fall.
A return to full health will by the injured players will make for interesting and heated competition and improve the Panthers. And even if Otah’s issues continue, and Williams and Schwartz aren’t 100 percent, the offensive line still took enough steps forward this past season they should be even more efficient next season.