After the Carolina Panthers finished the 2010 season with an NFL-worst 2-14 record, there was a lot of blame to go around. Head coach John Fox was a lame duck, in the final year of a contract that most believed wouldn't be renewed. Jerry Richardson was a cheap owner who cared more about saving money than winning games. Matt Moore was overrated, and Jimmy Clausen wasn't ready. The list could go on and on, but one of the biggest omissions from the list of those culpable was actually an omission from the lineup.
In 2008, the Panthers spent a first-round draft pick on a running back from Oregon named Jonathan Stewart. But before Panthers fans even had time to YouTube Stewart, the Panthers were picking again. Three picks after the Panthers secured "J-Stew," as he has affectionately come to be known by Panthers fans, the Panthers had traded back into the first round to select an offensive tackle from Pittsburgh named Jeff Otah.
Based on the amount of future picks the team gave away, fans were hoping for an immediate impact from Otah. They were not disappointed. Otah was immediately inserted as the starter at right tackle, and he helped anchor a line that propelled the Panthers to finish third in the NFL in rushing that year, with over 152 yards per game. The Panthers parlayed that success into a No. 2 playoff seed in the NFC and finished the regular season with a 12-4 record.
Otah's second year, 2009, saw the team again finish third in the NFL in rushing with 162 yards per game. Even more impressive was the fact that Stewart and DeAngelo Williams became the first teammates in NFL history to each rush for over 1,100 yards in a single season. Struggles from the defense and quarterback Jake Delhomme would spoil their record-setting performance on the ground as the team stumbled to an 8-8 record while missing the playoffs.
Late in the 2009 season, Otah suffered a "minor" knee injury that turned out to be not so minor. The injury held him out of the last few games of the 2009 season. However, hopes were high that, with surgery and rehab, that he would be ready to go in 2010. In August of that year, Otah suffered a setback in his rehab and missed the preseason entirely. He then started the year on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list, but never saw the field and ended up on Injured Reserve, meaning he would miss the entire season.
Otah has been a decent pass blocker, but has been a total road grater for the Panthers' ground game with his 6'6", 330-pound frame. In his absence in 2010, the Panthers running attack slipped all the way 13th in the league, almost 50 yards per game less than they had achieved in the two previous seasons. Otah missed four games his rookie season due to injury, three in 2009 and all 16 games last season.
As the NFL lockout ended and teams were getting set for training camps last month, Otah seemed ready to go. Then, during training camp, he experienced what the team called "swelling" in his injured knee. He subsequently missed several weeks of practice and has yet to take the field in a preseason game. Fortunately, he finally returned to practice last week, and the team is optimistic that he will be ready for the season opener at Arizona on September 11th.
If Otah is healthy, the offensive line looks really good on paper, but the unit, sans Otah, has struggled this preseason. If he doesn't get on the field soon, the organization and fans will have to wonder if he will ever get healthy.
Despite all of the "problems" the team has right now, Otah's presence in the lineup cannot be understated. Their offensive success and their overall team success could be riding on the injured knee of Otah. If the line is intact, their running backs will have a better chance for success. That, in turn, will open up the passing game and take pressure off of Cam Newton (or Jimmy Clausen).
No matter who is under center or lining up in the backfield, their chances of success will be a lot greater with Otah in the lineup than without him.