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Greg Olsen's timing remains impeccable

Greg Olsen

CHARLOTTE — There are people who talk like they get paid by the word.

Then there are people who know how to place their words carefully, and because of the sheer number of them with which they've practiced, they inevitably end up falling into the right place at the right time. Sometimes they don't even have to be words, maybe a barked instruction or a frantic collection of sounds that are almost words, and that guy can become an icon. But it's impossible to miss their meaning because of the urgency and sincerity and clarity with which they're delivered.

That's a useful skill, whether you're trying to score a game-winning touchdown, describe how to break down an Andy Reid offense in a Super Bowl, or coach a kids' baseball team.

And that's where Greg Olsen has found yet another soft spot in a zone, transitioning smoothly from one of football's great tight ends to one of broadcasting's ascending young voices, earning comparisons to some legends, and doing it all with the same intensity with which he coaches the rising 11-year-olds of the South Charlotte Revolution.

The former Panthers tight end has put the kind of work into his latest job that he did the last one, and there's a lot of overlap. So maybe it's not necessarily a surprise that it seems so natural, that it looks so easy for him. But it's partially because of the years it took building up to this, putting libraries' worth of football and words together and making them come out just right.

"You know, I think I'm always going to consider myself a football player," Olsen said earlier this offseason. "That's kind of what I was and what I loved and kind of how I saw myself. But now, I'm not just doing this because I had the opportunity. I'm really trying to make this a true career. This is something that hopefully I can do, be one of those guys who does this for 20 years. That's kind of the approach that I took coming into it, not knowing if that's really what I wanted.

"But now, after going through it for two years, and really seeing a lot of different aspects of the business and working with different crews and different producers and different directors, this is something that I really enjoy doing. It's something I look forward to. It's not a burden; it's not something I do for a quick paycheck to keep me busy for half a year. It's really something I've enjoyed learning and something that I've enjoyed doing. And to me, that's all the signs necessary for me to say, 'No, pursue it until they kick you out, and continue to see how good you can get and continue to see what you're able to accomplish until nobody wants you on the TV anymore.'"

At this point, it doesn't seem like that's going to be anytime soon. But you also have to remember, at this point, he's been doing this full-time for exactly two years and has already reached the top.

That's not a place you get by just talking. That's a place you get to by saying the right thing at the right time.

And that appears to be Greg Olsen's thing.

Greg Olsen, Travis Kelce

Panthers long snapper JJ Jansen's not just a former teammate. He also coaches youth baseball with Olsen and has studied alongside him on the mountain of prep work as Olsen made the shift to calling games instead of playing them.

But for him, the quintessential Olsen moment is one from his playing career, one that still stands out in so many memories.

"He's able to take a tremendous amount of information and operate calmly in chaos, right?" Jansen said. "The example I always give was in the huddle in Seattle in 2015. He's the one yelling at Ryan Kalil to snap the ball to start the play. Then Cam Newton throws the touchdown, and everybody sees that, and it's because he's seeing everything unfold in the play clock winding down.

"So it's not his job, but he's just hyper-aware and capable of picking through a lot of inputs."

That touchdown was in Week 6 of the 2015 season, a game-winning score that announced the Panthers were for real and the first tangible sign that a Super Bowl run was something they were capable of.

But there are other such moments, such as when he and FOX play-by-play partner Kevin Burkhardt were relaxing in the green room prior to calling their first Super Bowl together. Even though it was a career peak, it seemed so normal, so natural, that the play clock was winding down on them too.

"We were downstairs in the stadium, you know, there's obviously 8 zillion more people and things going on at a normal game, and we have a pre-game hit to do a few hours before the game, whatever time it was," Burkhardt said with a laugh. "And we're just watching the pre-game show. And we're just shooting the s---, talking about the game, and hanging out watching the show, and we lost track of time. And our director Rich Russo calls and is like, guys, your hit is in 3 minutes.

"And you get this feeling like 'Holy s---.' We were so casual that we forgot. So we get out to the field, do our hit, and go on to call the Super Bowl, but we almost missed our first hit on television that day because we were just chilling and talking about the game."

Burkhardt and Olsen have that kind of easy rapport that comes with time and chemistry. They may have only worked NFL games together for a couple of years, but they've known each other effectively forever since Burkhardt called Olsen's high school games for a radio station in New Jersey when they were both much younger in these businesses. So it's not necessarily a surprise to them when it feels natural. Burkhardt saw it when Olsen dropped by the baseball playoff set in Los Angeles last year and just naturally fell into conversations with Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz, the same as he does with football players and coaches in the more familiar environments of production meetings.

"He came and hung with us for a while, was talking Miami with A-Rod, and fit right in with Big Papi, like it was no big deal," Burkhardt said. "He could definitely do it. He's a big baseball fan, and obviously, he coaches his kid's team, so 100 percent I could see him jumping on the show and being just fine and holding his own. That would not surprise me at all."

Of course, hanging out with ballplayers and having those kinds of conversations come so naturally is the kind of thing not just anyone can fall into.

Olsen arrives with the credibility of having been one of the best in the game. Coming along just before the era of the do-it-all tight end that's now the rage in football, he was the first ever at his position to record three straight 1,000-yard seasons. Part of that had to do with the organic connection he found with a fearless and strong-armed quarterback in Cam Newton, who wasn't afraid to throw it over the middle. But it was also because of all the time he spent knowing, which came from work.

To know what the Seahawks are about to do, you have to know the Seahawks. And you only get that by putting in time on task. Having shared a locker room as well as a youth baseball field with him, Jansen knows that's where the difference is born — in the film room or wherever the film might be.

JJ Jansen, Greg Olsen

"I think there's a lot of similarities to when he played," Jansen said. "It's game tape; it's the analytics and the data that you've collected. And then in a game, you're using that sort of breakdown the other team. In this case, as a broadcaster, it's anticipating what's about to happen so that you can have some good insights from the fans to learn to understand what they're watching. And it's also just being prepared to explain what's going on in the field.

"The biggest thing in our sessions that we've sort of always talked about is, 'Hey, I understand what's going on in the data, what has happened in previous games, but I still have to tell the story of what's happening on the screen.' And so it's preparing for a wide variety of potential things that might happen. And then being ready to execute, depending on how that game turns out, which is exactly like football. We prepare for what the teams have historically done and how they might attack us. But at the end of the day, you've still got to be prepared to play the game in front of us. So there are a lot of similarities. And I think that's why he's really good at it.

"I think that's the most fun. Because you are learning constantly, not only about players but coaches, and it becomes a bit of a chess match, right? And you, instead of having to compete against the other side, you actually get to think if, like in the Super Bowl, if I'm Andy Reid, how do I attack Nick Sirianni? And you get to say, 'If I'm Nick Sirianni, how would I attack Andy Reid?' So you actually get to sort of think and plan and strategize on both sides. I think that with his intellectual curiosity, that was the most fun for him. And I think, again, that's what makes him really, really good, is being able to take a ton of information and then boiling it down to those key moments in the game, that you got to explain what happened. But you know what? There are only 30 seconds because you're on to maybe the next play or something else. So it's a pretty cool process to take a lot of information and boil it down to stuff that the fans can really chew on."

And there's a lot to chew.

During his first full-time year in the booth in 2021 (he had plugged in during bye weeks and did XFL games before his retirement), Olsen and Burkhardt worked with long-time and award-winning FOX producer Pete Macheska. He's worked with a lot of former players over the years. He just shepherded Derek Jeter through his debut on a pre-game show, and like most of them, having someone talking in your head through an earpiece is counterintuitive when the goal is for you to continue to say words for the audience. "That was strange hearing that for the first time," Jeter told Macheska after his first broadcast.

But Olsen picked up the IFB and impressed the veteran producer with his ability to run with it.

"What I was very impressed with in Greg is his ability to talk, OK," Macheska said with a laugh (and anyone who interviewed Olsen in a locker room postgame knows this is true). "But I actually got mad a couple of times (in pregame meetings) because we're going on forever about one graphic. It's like, 'Greg, we've got 50 more to go through.' I said, 'We'll be here 'til midnight, and we're overanalyzing.' So you've got to get used to the ebb and flow, and he had to get used to that. I'd say, 'Hey, Greg, you only have 15 seconds, 20 seconds to bring your point.' But what I was impressed with is the guy could talk. But it came naturally to him to get in and out quickly between plays and analyze. Yeah, so that was really, really impressive to me.

"You could tell, little things he would show us on film like, OK, Tom Brady knows exactly where Gronk is, watch this little move that they do right before the snap, that he just, you know, get the shot to his hip or something like that. And he knows that, you know what I mean? He just knows these little signals because he played the game. And he studied that."

Again, Macheska has done this for a long time, so he's seen analysts come and go. But when talking about what separated Olsen from so many, he very casually dropped a name that not many people in the television business can reasonably aspire to.

"Greg's so inquisitive," Macheska said. "I worked with John Madden, and there was always a question. John Madden had his theories. And then, he would, by looking at the film, bring in his theories to the game and ask questions. And Greg's the same way."

There's a pause. You don't just compare a young broadcaster to John Madden, who revolutionized how we watch football on television. Except, he kind of did, and it came out very casually, very naturally.

"I'm not saying he's John Madden, by any means," Macheska said, because that would be an unfair burden to put on anyone, especially someone who doesn't just blurt out a "Boom" for effect, or become such a star he had his own bus and beer commericals.

"But he looks at the film, and he's so inquisitive. And he asks the right questions and has done plenty of homework," Macheska continued about Olsen's early broadcasts. "And I think that's why he's been so successful because he works at it really well. And it comes easy to him. It doesn't come easily for everyone, but it comes easily for him."

Burkhardt has seen it up close and remains amazed by how quickly Olsen has been able to trade on his own prep work and standing in the league to pull insights from players and coaches. A few stand out, but notably some of their conversations with former Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who took Olsen and Burkhardt to places they didn't necessarily expect.

"We had a couple hour-long conversations with Aaron Rodgers, like just those two, going back and forth on football stuff like this and why this, and boom," Burkhardt said. "And then, we'd venture off into whatever, like books he had read, and it was really all because of Greg.

"And I like Aaron a lot. But if you could have rolled on that, you could have made a 10-part miniseries on Netflix about just two guys talking football, and people would have been riveted by it. So the only shame is that it didn't air. That's how good it was. That's the kind of stuff I'm talking about."

As Burkhardt found out when Olsen started chopping it up with Rodriguez and Ortiz on the baseball set, the conversations aren't limited to football just because that's the thing Olsen knows the best.

"The beauty of it is you'd much rather have Greg, who has opinions and thoughts on everything and is excited to talk and share with them than someone who doesn't have opinions and thoughts and doesn't talk, right?" Burkhardt said. "If you've been around him, you know he'll share an opinion about anything, and it's great. That's why dinners are fun. We go anywhere, right? We're talking pop music, you name it. But he's also great in the sense that he's learned so fast that if we need to get out in a certain amount of time, he's gotten so good at that, which is hard.

"And I think that's what makes him so beautiful. It's like, he could talk and wants to talk about anything. When we do these (production) meetings, now that he's spearheading these meetings we do with players. He gets them talking. I mean, he gets guys going. And it's awesome. Like, we go down rabbit holes with players and coaches that are so fascinating to me. Because he's like, 'Hey, I was curious, I was watching this, and I don't understand why you did this,' or 'What was the thinking behind this?' And they're like, 'Wow, it's really interesting to pick that up,' and boom, then we go down this rabbit hole, and it's so fast. So I love it. I'm just a fly on the wall learning. It's awesome."

Kevin Burkhardt, Greg Olsen

For Olsen, the realization that he's still so new at this is never far away. His appetite for learning all the intricacies of the game has shifted from a particular week's opponent on the field to the next assignment. His close friends like Jansen know that questions come at all times of the day and night — "You'll get a text like, 'Did you see this?'" Jansen said — as Olsen pours himself into this job.

From that standpoint, his rapid ascent isn't necessarily a surprise, even if the situation that led to it was unusual. When Joe Buck and Troy Aikman left for ESPN's Monday Night Football last March, Burkhardt and Olsen were eventually promoted to FOX's top crew, which meant they were in line to call the Super Bowl.

"I would say that no one in our company thought Joe Buck or Troy Aikman were going anywhere, right?" Macheska said. "So we didn't think he'd be there this soon necessarily, but we knew we had potential, and our executives knew if they put them in that situation, they'd succeed."

Still, it's a learning process that Olsen describes as "ongoing."

"You know, there were things that I learned through the playoffs that I didn't know weeks before or the year before that," Olsen said. "I think every single week, every single game, something new comes up that you don't even know what you don't know. I think that, really, I'm a testament to that, week in and week out. Different things happen in the truck. Different things happen in the booth. Different situations unfold on the field. And as anything, the more you're comfortable, and the more experience you get handling different circumstances that you hadn't had before, the better you are at it the next time.

"So I think, like anything, this is kind of a long-term growth kind of project. I think this is something that you're better at in Year 2 than you were in Year 1. You're better in Year 5 than you were in Year 2. I'm sure if you asked the Chris Collinsworths of the world, the Troy Aikmans, guys that have been doing this for 20-plus years, I would imagine they'd say they're better now than they were at Year 10. I think this is something that is more of an art than a science."

In the same way he dissects game plans on the air for viewers, there are things he wants to get better at. He watches other analysts use a Telestrator and files away notes he can use later. He admires how smooth some are at getting in and out of breaks (something a play-by-play guy traditionally does) and knows there are things he wants to steal from others and make his own.

"You're just constantly growing and trying to evolve," Olsen said. "And I really do think that's kind of the beauty of the whole thing. There's really no ceiling to what you're able to do. And, you know, it's just fun, right? I mean, you're talking football to a live audience in real-time. And sometimes, it comes out the way you think it in your brain. And sometimes you say, 'That wasn't very good.' And you just move on to the next place. So it's, it's a cool process."

Greg Olsen

Other people have noticed that growth.

In May, Olsen won a Sports Emmy for outstanding personality/emerging on-air talent over a group including ESPN's Andraya Carter, Robert Griffin III, Eli Manning, and JJ Redick.

He laughed when asked about the award since he didn't go to New York for the ceremony and had to deliver his acceptance speech over social media. His charity golf tournament was that day, and trying to get from an outing that ended in Charlotte at 4:30 p.m. to a 7 p.m. show in New York didn't seem feasible.

And besides, from studying his own film, he got caught in the tendencies.

Olsen was twice a finalist for the NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, the odd man out in 2016 when Manning and Larry Fitzgerald shared the award, and again in 2017 to JJ Watt after the Texans defensive end raised $37 million in 19 days for Hurricane Harvey relief.

"Yeah, I'll be honest, I haven't had the greatest of luck in award ceremonies," Olsen cracked. "I've sat through many award ceremonies where I've had to be the guy who loses."

Not this time. File it away, learn from this one, and have the tuxedo ready in the future. Because much in the same way Olsen's football career took off when he came to the Panthers, now that he's called a Super Bowl and won an award, people have figured out how good he is at this.

He was a pretty good player when he came here, a former first-round pick. But landing with Newton and the Panthers was a perfect fit, so he went to three Pro Bowls as others figured out how quickly and how naturally the talent emerged.

"Awards are no different than when you make your first Pro Bowl, then you make three," Olsen said. "It's funny how once you get one outside recognition, or whatever it is, it does kind of validate a career, even though that, you know, that award was not going to change how I approached this upcoming season. It's not going to change how proud I was of what our crew was able to do last year, culminating in the Super Bowl."

Becoming an overnight success on the field took years of practice and film study and lifting and running and didn't happen until a surprising trade brought him here. Earning so much recognition as a broadcaster followed that pattern, as a surprising shift in broadcast crews put the spotlight on him sooner than he might have ever imagined.

But just like when he played, Olsen's sense of timing, and of being ready when the moment arrived, turned out to be perfect.

See photos from Olsen's offices in his Receptions 4 Research foundation in Charlotte as he watches film to prepare for Sunday's Panthers-Cowboys broadcast on FOX.

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