Will Michael Oher Solve Carolina Panthers’ Offensive Line Woes?


Last season the Carolina Panthers did something no NFC South team had ever done – win the division in back to back seasons. The Panthers won their first game of the playoffs before being defeated by the Seattle Seahawks.

These victories came during a losing season. With a final record of 7-8-1, the Panthers scooted into the playoffs not only on the strength of their team but on the historically bad performances of the rest of the NFC South.

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Their first round playoff match-up against the Arizona Cardinals, (who were playing with their third string quarterback, and without star running back Andre Ellington and numerous other key starters) would almost certainly have turned out differently if the Cardinals had been able to field their team as it looked at the beginning of the season.

Head coach Ron Rivera and the Panthers’ front office seem keenly aware of this and have picked up 32 new players so far this offseason.  It’s the moves on the offensive line that are the most interesting, particularly the acquisitions of  Michael Oher and Johnathan Martin. Both of these players are nationally famous (albeit for different reasons,) and both are looking for a chance to salvage their careers.

Bryan Knowles of Bleacher Report  writes that Carolina’s blueprint for success in 2015 must start with the offensive line.

“The Panthers had very poor pass protection in 2014. Football Outsiders ranked the offensive line 22nd in pass protection, while Pro Football Focus had them in dead last in terms of cumulative grade. They ‘only’ allowed 42 sacks, which is within shouting distance of the league average, but that’s in large part to the mobility and improvisational skills of Cam Newton. Newton was third in the league in ‘Houdinis’—broken tackles behind the line of scrimmage. He turned 10 more probable sacks into extended plays last season, despite suffering early on in the year from the lingering aftereffects of a broken ankle.”

In other words, if it weren’t for Cam, those numbers would have been way worse. Three of the offensive line’s opening day starters were replaced by the end of the season. Ryan Kalil, by far the best player on the line statistically, is still there. To upgrade statistically worst tackle Byron Bell, Michael Oher was brought in from the Tennessee Titans.

May 28, 2015; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers tackle Michael Oher (right) runs a drill against Jordan McCray (62) during the practice held at the Bank of America Stadium practice facility. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Most people would know Michael Oher from the Sandra Bullock blockbuster movie The Blind Side. Oher won a Super Bowl ring with the Baltimore Ravens in 2013. As a free agent he signed a 4-year, $20 million contract with the Titans, but was released after only one season in which he started 11 games.

That a team so desperate for talent as the Titans released Oher is deeply concerning. However, Panthers GM Dave Gettleman announced Oher’s signing and was quoted by ESPN as saying, “We did our homework on Michael, and we feel very strongly that he can be an answer for us. He’ll be inserted at left tackle, and we’ll go from there.”

It doesn’t inspire much confidence that Oher’s performance has statistically declined every year since he’s been in the league. However, he’s worked with members of the Panthers coaching staff before and it wouldn’t be the first time a change of scenery brought out a renaissance in a player.

If Oher loses the starting job, it’s likely his career will be over when his current two-year deal runs out. Exceptional guards are hard to find, but the college ranks are replete with plug and play solutions that will be cheaper than the six-year veteran.

On the other side of the line, right tackle Jonathan Martin is nationally known as the victim in the Miami Dolphins “Bullygate” scandal that erupted the same year that the Ravens won the Super Bowl. He was released by the San Francisco 49ers after one season.

Dec 14, 2014; Seattle, WA, USA; San Francisco 49ers tackle Jonathan Martin (71) against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike Oher, Martin’s signing didn’t come with any fanfare or expectation that he’ll be starting. According to the Charlotte Observer’s Joseph Person, “he’s expected to compete with Nate Chandler for the backup spot behind starting right tackle Mike Remmers.”

Martin told Person that despite the intentions in bringing him here, he’ll plan to compete for the starting job.

“I think that’s always your intention as a football player. If your goal isn’t to be the best every time you step on the field, then you really have no business being in this business. I’m looking forward to competing with these guys and showing them what I can do.”

Like Oher, Martin’s career stats have declined since his rookie season. But how much of that is due to the scrutiny of the bullying scandal and then last year’s internal implosion in the San Francisco locker room that caused head coach Jim Harbaugh to part ways with the organization?

Maybe all Martin needs is some time to distance himself from Bullygate and integrate into an organization with more stability than San Francisco.

If Oher and Martin succeed, the benefits to the Carolina offense can’t be overstated. Cam Newton is one of the most athletic and dynamic playmakers, and the team has improved at both the wide receiver and running back position.

Tight end Greg Olson has shown that he belongs in the top tier of players at that position. The defense didn’t get any worse in the off season.

With a stable offensive line the Panthers could be looking at making history yet again – by winning three NFC South division championships in a row.

Next: Panthers: 5 Key Stats

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