Often times we overlook the fullback position on a football team, but Carolina’s just might be the most influential on the offense.
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Mike Tolbert has spent three seasons with the Panthers and has been regarded as one of the league’s best at the position since signing in Carolina. Last season’s efforts even rewarded him with a trip to the Pro Bowl – and this season likely would have too had he not spent most of it sidelined with an injury.
Yes, that injury was a huge blow for both him and the Panthers as a whole.
Sep 21, 2014; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert (35) runs with the ball during the third quarter as Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Cortez Allen (28) defends during the third quarter at Bank of America Stadium. The Steelers won 37-19. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
In a Week 3 matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tolbert suffered a hairline fracture that forced him to be placed on injured reserve with a designation-to return-list. He was out until Week 13 against the Minnesota Vikings.
Those eight games were very, very unkind to Carolina, as they were only able to secure one win during the stretch (1-6-1). It came against the dysfunctional Chicago Bears and the results left them a long-shot to make the playoffs.
Tolbert’s first game back was a rough one for the Panthers as it resulted in a terrible loss in the frozen air of Minnesota. He was just working his way back, but once he got his feet back under him Carolina was a new team.
The Panthers would win their final four regular-season games, astonishingly getting them into the postseason. They would even wind up winning a playoff game only to fall at the hands of the eventual Super Bowl runner-up Seattle Seahawks.
So all in all, that puts the Panthers at a pitiful 1-6-1 without Tolbert, and a much-improved 7-3 with him on the field.
January 10, 2015; Seattle, WA, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) speaks with running back Jonathan Stewart (28) during the first half in the 2014 NFC Divisional playoff football game at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
Let’s not forget, it was the revitalized rushing attack – particularly from Jonathan Stewart – that made the difference down the stretch. The offensive line had done an absolutely awful job opening running lanes all season long, then out of nowhere seemed competent.
Are we supposed to pretend it was a coincidence the Panthers rushing attack improved once Tolbert returned?
Certainly he wasn’t the only reason for the rushing resurgence – he only rushed for 95 yards and hauled in one touchdown. But his presence and run-blocking made a big difference.
It’s often overlooked how convenient it is to have a back that you know with near-certainty can gain at least a yard when need-be. In goal line situations, Tolbert is as close to a sure-thing as you’ll find. The same goes for third- and fourth-and-short situations as well.
Going eight games without a guy like that will certainly have an affect on a team, I’m just not sure we expected it to be this great of one.
It’s unclear how the running back position will play out for the Carolina Panthers going in to next year.
One thing’s for sure. It’ll be a lot better with a healthy Mike Tolbert.
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