CHARLOTTE – Cam Newton didn't realize that his most frequent target over the last three seasons is closing in on something no tight end has done in the history of the NFL.
And, no offense to the offensive weapon that is Greg Olsen, but Newton nearly couldn't believe it.
"Three back-to-back with 1,000 yards?" Newton asked incredulously. "Not Kellen Winslow? Not Gronk? Tony Gonzalez?"
No, none of them nor anyone else has ever had three consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons at the tight end position, something Olsen needs just eight yards over the final two games to accomplish.
Olsen didn't practice for the second consecutive day Thursday – another rarity for a player who has played in 156 consecutive regular season games – but head coach Ron Rivera isn't worried. Rivera is confident that Olsen's elbow injury won't prevent him from suiting up for the Panthers' home finale Saturday against the Falcons.
Newton, too, is counting on Olsen – as always.
"When you look at him, he's not the biggest, he's not the strongest, he's not the fastest – even though he thinks he is. But he's a guy that brings that mentality every single day," Newton said. "You can't hate on that; you've just got to respect it. That's what I do."
Newton also shared his thoughts Thursday on another of his Pro Bowl teammates. Like linebacker Luke Kuechly, Newton suffered a concussion this season, one that shook him but one that sidelined him for just one game. Kuechly has missed four games but was cleared from the concussion protocol after three.
Newton was frank about what he'd like to see happen with Kuechly over the next two weeks.
"There's no denying the truth: At this particular point, our chances of making the playoffs are minimal," Newton said. "Luke is a person that could potentially be the greatest linebacker to ever play the game – straight up – and watching him and Thomas (Davis) is poetry is motion. Those guys just bring an aspect to the game. For me, I wouldn't want to jeopardize that for the long term just to bring him back. Now this is coming strictly for me – I'm not talking for RV (head athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion), not talking for Coach, and I'm definitely not talking for Luke. But it is coming from a person who sustained a concussion. You can't rush that.
"He can take all the time he needs because the long-term goal for this team is to be in the playoffs and play for Super Bowls. We want him to get back to 100 percent and we want him back out there, but at the end of the day, if he's not ready to be back out there, just take your time."
Newton said A.J. Klein is "playing great ball" in Kuechly's place, but especially given the long-shot nature of Carolina's playoff chances, this isn't about what's happening on the field. That's also the case in light of what happened the last time the Panthers played the Falcons in Week 4, when Newton sustained a concussion and missed the next game.
"I've taken a lot of big hits, tough hits and some wooziness, but nothing like the hit that occurred when I had the concussion. It's nothing to play with, I can tell you that," Newton said. "This game brings a lot of joy, and also there are a lot of repercussions that come with it. But I wouldn't change my profession for nothing because it is, in my opinion, one of the best sports if not the best sport because it brings so many different people together."
View photos of the Panthers as they prepare for their game against Atlanta.