Bond between Cam Newton and Greg Olsen goes beyond the field

ByELIZABETH MERRILL
February 7, 2016, 12:50 AM

— -- CAM NEWTON MAKES up nicknames for everyone on the Carolina Panthers' roster. Receiver Jerrico Cotchery is "Jerrico Clutchery." When Newton first met receiver Brenton Bersin, a man with long, flowing blond hair, he decided to name him after the prince in "Shrek." Only Newton got mixed up and named him "Lord Farquaad," the ugly villain from the movie.

"So I corrected him," Bersin said, "and I was like, 'You mean Prince Charming?' And he was like, 'I'm not going to call you that. You're stuck with Lord Farquaad.'"

Perhaps the most revealing name Newton has come up with is for tight end Greg Olsen. Newton calls him "The Dictator."

Teammates insist it's a term of endearment. When you've been together for five years like Newton and Olsen have, through babies and Thursday night meals in the quarterbacks room and losing seasons and a trip to the Super Bowl, you can bust on each other a bit.

And take over a quarterback's huddle. According to center Ryan Kalil, the tight end knows the offense better than some of the coaches. Olsen knows every position on the field. The Panthers' offense is complex, with long, wordy plays, and Newton doesn't wear a wristband. So when Olsen spots something wrong, he corrects Newton in the huddle.

"Greg's got a good way of doing it," Panthers quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey said, "and it's not like an A-hole way of doing it. I think they both have a high respect for one another."

Olsen is Newton's go-to guy, amassing more than 1,000 yards in each of the past two regular seasons. This season, he had nearly as many catches as the Panthers' second- and third-leading receivers ( Ted Ginn Jr. and Cotchery) combined. Olsen says it's his goal to see the game through Newton's eyes, and if they can connect enough against Denver in Super Bowl 50 on Sunday in Santa Clara, Olsen will become just the fourth tight end in NFL history to win a title after leading his team in yards and receptions.

Their bond comes from repetitions, alone-time in the film room and teasing. Dorsey suspects their wardrobes provide some fodder for both sides. (Newton, with the possible exception of the $800 Versace zebra-print pants this week, is stylish; Olsen often looks like the man on a roll of Brawny).

But their relationship runs deeper than that. It's about trust, and a sense of knowing where Olsen will be before he even runs his route. It's about a unique friendship forged when one man was starting his NFL career and another was looking for a reboot.

"Even separately, they have huge personalities," Panthers backup quarterback Joe Webb said. "They kind of clash, and it's funny. In a good way. They both have to be right. They're the biggest personalities on offense, and it's just funny watching them together."

HOW CLOSE are Olsen and Newton? Olsen ate Thanksgiving dinner at Newton's house this past fall. The team rolled in late that night after a victory over Dallas, and it was well after midnight when Olsen and a handful of others showed up at Newton's house to feast on a meal his Auntie Gail made.

When Olsen appeared to go down with a knee injury against Atlanta in December, Newton later told his brother, Cecil Jr., that he "wouldn't even take the field without Greg."

"When he says that," Cecil said, "it means Greg is his road dog. That's his go-to. That says a lot about Greg and what he means to Cam."

Newton was the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2011; Olsen arrived three months later via a trade with the Chicago Bears. Though the idea of bringing in a sturdy veteran tight end to help mentor a rookie quarterback sounds like a good storyline, it wasn't necessarily the Panthers' thinking back then. A good tight end is always a young quarterback's friend because he's running tight routes in the line of sight, and Carolina's front office wanted to surround Newton with plenty of options. They also added tight end Jeremy Shockey, and already had All-Pro receiver Steve Smith Sr.

Olsen never really had the chance to mesh with a quarterback in his four years in Chicago. He had the musical-chairs combination of Kyle Orton, Rex Grossman and Brian Griese, and his time with Jay Cutler was short-lived. The Bears hired a new offensive coordinator in Mike Martz, and Olsen didn't fit his system. So in the summer of 2011, during Bears' training camp in Bourbonnais, Illinois, the Bears traded him to Carolina.

He left camp and got on a plane, not even stopping at home. His mom, Sue, flew to Chicago and helped his wife Kara load up all of their belongings for a two-day drive with a baby and two dogs.

Immediately, it seemed like a good move. Newton is a power thrower, and Olsen has good hands, can line up anywhere and makes tough catches.

"I feel like this is a fluid work in progress since we got here together," Olsen said. "My second half of my career and his career kind of start on the same day when we both get here in 2011. It's been fun growing together. We've played a lot of plays together, we've had a lot of reps and walk-throughs. I think that communication, that trust, that level of respect for one another, being open-minded and doing things a certain way, I think that's the only way you can build that kind of rapport together."

They would find each other during down times, such as special-teams periods, and Olsen would run routes for Newton. They still do this today. They'd watch extra film together, and Olsen would spend Thursdays in the quarterback room eating and bantering with Newton and the backups.

They communicate constantly. Olsen will ask Newton what he wants him to do in various situations. Asked Thursday what their relationship has meant to him, Newton said, "It's meant a lot.

"I don't think Greg gets a lot of credit for his football awareness. He's extremely good at that. A lot of times on the field, he does a great job with just finding ways to get open. Of course the route concepts go however they're made, but I scramble and I step up and when he sensed that I have trouble, he finds a way to get open. I think that's a credit to him having the lineage of football expertise in his past being coached by his father. His father is still being influential in his life. He tells us stories about his kids and how tough his father is with his kids and all. It just goes to show you football has been in him for a long time. It shows each and every time we go out there."

THE ROOTS of this chemistry, some believe, started long ago, possibly even before Newton was born.

Olsen's dad, Chris, coached high school football in New Jersey for most of his life. His wife, Sue Olsen, taught gym. Chris won eight state championships, and his attention to detail was maddening. He would make his team practice a play over and over until it was perfect. By the time his boys were old enough to walk, he was taking them to coaches' meetings and scouting trips, and soon Greg and his brother, also named Chris, were charting plays.

Greg was a water boy, then a ball boy, then he fulfilled his biggest dream at the time: playing football for his dad. Much to the chagrin of the local competition, Greg played every sport with his brother Chris, who was a grade older. In Little League, when the boys were allowed to throw only three innings, Chris would pitch and Greg would catch, then they'd switch in the fourth inning and Greg would hand his brother his catcher's gear and head to the mound. In football, Chris was Greg's quarterback.

"They were inseparable," the elder Olsen said. "You build up an accountability to each other, a feel that one doesn't want to let the other one down. I'm sure that goes the same way with Greg and Cam. I know Greg has said 100 times, 'I want to be there for Cam when he needs me.'"

At Super Bowl media night this week, Olsen said that his high school days with his family are still "some of the fondest memories that I have in my football career." His brother said he made things easy for a quarterback, 6-foot-5 even back then, repeating everything until it was right, seeing the game through his brother's eyes. It's the same thing he does with Newton.

Olsen started his high school career as a running back, but switched to tight end as a sophomore. He also played linebacker. When Wayne Hills High struggled with its pass rush, his dad turned to one of his assistants midweek in practice and told him, "Make him a defensive end." Olsen wound up being Gatorade Defensive Player of the Year.

"You couldn't block him," said Wayne Hills coach Wayne Demikoff, the school's defensive line coach when the Olsens were there. "As big, as fast and as smart as he is, he could've played any position on the field he wanted to. Listen, he's gifted. I think if they put a ball in his hands, he could probably throw it 70 yards downfield."

ST. LOUIS RAMS offensive coordinator Rob Boras, who used to coach Olsen in Chicago, said some quarterbacks and receivers never connect, no matter how long they play together. Boras, whose kids own Greg Olsen jerseys, watched the NFC Championship Game on TV two weeks ago. He was amazed at how much Olsen and Newton click.

"When Cam is at the top of his drop, he's not waiting for Greg to get open, Boras said. "He trusts that Greg is going to be where he's supposed to be when he's supposed to be there. There's a difference between seeing a guy open and anticipating he's going to be open.

"That's what you dream about as a coach, is to find that type of chemistry."

As the confetti came down after the Panthers' 49-15 win against the Arizona Cardinals that night, Newton and Olsen stood on a stage and celebrated. Newton hugged Olsen so hard it took the wind out of him. Olsen's dad took a picture of it on his cellphone.

Kalil, who has been with both of them from the start in Carolina, calls Newton the biggest kid he has ever played football with. And Olsen has a good time, too.

"He's probably one of the funnier guys on the team," Kalil said. "I think they complement each other."

They star in a Gatorade commercial together, and for once, Olsen doesn't even say a thing. He has no lines. Olsen is sitting in a cold tub with his headphones on, and Newton walks in. The quarterback is known as being superstitious, and he repeatedly asks the tight end to move from his lucky cold tub. Olsen waves him off, so Newton joins him in the tub.

"Let me tell you, everybody who watches it, even my friends back in Jersey say, 'That is Greg,'" Chris Sr. said. "I know it's a commercial, but that's exactly his facial expression, almost not acknowledging you but waving you off a little bit. That's him, and by the same token, that's Cam, too.

"You can't get any closer than that."

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