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Football IQ gives Olsen edge

Posted Jul 15, 2014

CHARLOTTE – I had a good idea what his answer would be, but I had to ask.

So not long ago, I stopped head coach Ron Rivera in the hallway at Bank of America Stadium.

"Which player on the team is best suited to devise a game plan and coach a game?"

Rivera thought for a couple seconds.

"Greg Olsen," he answered.

Just as I suspected.

Rivera smirked before adding one more thing.

"He's a coach's kid."

I'm well aware.



Chris Olsen is Greg's father and was his football coach at Wayne Hills High School in New Jersey.

Chris Olsen was also my gym and driver's education teacher (I graduated from Wayne Hills in 2007; Greg graduated in 2003.)

In his time as head coach from 1987-2012, Olsen's father transformed Wayne Hills football. The program went from mediocre to unbeatable. From 2002-11, Wayne Hills won eight state football championships. At one point, the team won 55 consecutive games.

This wildly successful program produced an astounding number of victories but few major college prospects. The brightest stars were the three Olsen boys – the eldest, Chris, Jr., who played quarterback at Virginia, the middle child Greg and the youngest Kevin, who is a redshirt freshman quarterback at Miami.

Greg, a nominee for Gatorade National Player of the Year as a senior, was a supremely talented high school player. But his father's teams did not overwhelm the opposition with sheer talent. They won with a commitment to preparation and consistent execution.

That was the program's edge.

Greg didn't need that edge to succeed in high school. But that's where he first discovered it.



Having a football coach for a father meant Greg constantly absorbed the game from the time he was a water boy.

"He was always there," Chris said.

On Monday nights in junior high, Greg watched film with his father's coaching staff. After his high school games, Greg would spend Saturday morning critiquing the film with his father.

"Being young and learning the intricacies of what's expected – and that there's a lot that goes into it – I think that laid the foundation that allowed me to be coached by anyone and absorb any type of system," Greg said.

And it laid the foundation for a successful football career.

"It's like if your father was the president of a bank and you grow up to be a successful banker," Chris explained. "You're exposed to it at an early age, and it certainly gave him a leg up. And being a smart person on top of it doesn't hurt.

"Some people just don't get it. Greg always got it."



When he arrived at talent-rich Miami, Greg's football acumen played an instrumental role in his rise up the tight end depth chart.

"I noticed pretty quickly that I wasn't going to be able to just get by on being one of the best athletes. I wasn't one of the best athletes at my own position, let alone the entire team," he explained. "I knew I couldn't just show up and be better than a lot of guys. I had to try to find that edge, and for me, a lot of times that edge was cerebral. I always tried to know what to do, and that carries you a long way."

It carried Greg to the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft, where the Chicago Bears selected him 31st overall.

He was traded to Carolina in 2011 and has become as a vital member of the Panthers offense. He led the team with five touchdown catches in 2012 and produced a team-leading 73 receptions for 816 yards in 2013.

But his leadership extends beyond production. Greg's cerebral approach to the game helps set a standard.


On the flight to Arizona to play the Cardinals last season, Greg sat in his usual spot but he had company.

Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott and linebacker Luke Kuechly were standing in front him, listening. Olsen did what he often does. He talked football – a language he's fluent in.

He talked about route concepts. He pointed in different directions. He held court for about 30 minutes.

It could be a plane ride. It could be the sideline at practice or the locker room. Wherever it is, Greg is always trying to help his teammates or trying to learn from them.

"I enjoy talking football. I enjoy watching it. It just happens organically," he said. "I just enjoy shooting back and forth. Everyone benefits. I don't pretend to have all the answers. Intelligence is not necessarily about knowing everything, but it's knowing how to learn everything. That process really never ends."

When former Saints safety Roman Harper joined the team this offseason, it wasn't long before Greg struck up a conversation to learn some more.

"I asked him, 'What did you see from me? Good, bad?' I want to know what they thought he could take away from me," Greg said. "It can be a small little thing that you pick up that could make a big difference."



When I told Greg about Rivera's response to my hypothetical question, he was humbled.

There was pride in his father's voice.

"Well, I could see why Coach Rivera would say that, knowing Greg like he does now after three years," Chris said.

Rivera and anyone else who knows Greg Olsen knows how much he loves football and all that goes into being good at it. He can't hide his knowledge of the game or his enthusiasm for it.

"I love the preparation of it as much as I do playing it – from installs, to watching tape, to the game plans, to preparing for an opponent," Greg said. "The biggest thing I've tried to do my whole career is just listen. There's going to be a lot of different opinions thrown at you from different styles of coaches. I've run a lot of different offenses, and you just try to take it all in. The more you can absorb, the better."

Greg puts all he's learned to good use on game day. He's entering his eighth season as one of the most complete tight ends in the NFL, and he intends to keep it that way for the foreseeable future.

But when his playing days are over, could the son of a coach who sounds like a coach see himself coaching? It's too soon to say.

But Rivera isn't the only one who expressed confidence in the hypothetical idea should it one day come to fruition.

"Could he?" Chris said. "Without a doubt."