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Enter the Panthers: Offensive line struggles come full circle in rematch

After Carolina knocked the Seahawks out of the playoffs last year, the team decided to build around Garry Gilliam—which could decide their fate again in 2016

NFC Divisional Playoffs - Carolina Panthers v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

“That seemed to me like a really simple and direct project.”

During training camp I started putting together a piece on Garry Gilliam, aimed at calling the aspiring Seattle Seahawks starting left tackle “the biggest X factor” for Seattle’s 2016 season. For me, Gilliam was a fascinating figure. His course from Penn State tight end to undrafted Seahawks NFC Championship game fake-field goal hero, to installing himself as a stable blocker on the right side, to becoming a playing-card catching prospect to replace Pete Carroll’s first-ever Seahawks draft pick, looked like a key illustration of much of Carroll’s and Seattle’s formula for channeling gritty, inexpensive players into superstars at premium positions.

But before I could write the item, it became apparent Gilliam was losing his left tackle gig to Bradley Sowell, an even less-heralded name but without Gilliam’s upside or Seahawks-development-spring story. Gilliam relapsed to his former position at right tackle, even though Sowell was a disaster and got eventually supplanted by an even rawer, even undrafteder option (if that could be a thing, since George Fant was both a rookie and barely even a football player). And now Gilliam has lost that job to Sowell too, after being benched for poor play during the Tampa Bay game, which if you’re following what happened to Christine Michael or J’Marcus Webb recently might mean Gilliam is not even long for the team.

Which could also mean the end of his career. After all, who would want a failed lineman with no draft pedigree from the worst unit in the league? It’s a sudden fall for the man not long ago the presumptive successor to Russell Okung: Saturday Gilliam was celebrating his 26th birthday and Sunday he took possibly his last snaps in the NFL. I wonder if any of these kids in Pennsylvania are saying “I am Garry Gilliam” this week?

Maybe the one who says, “I want to be an artist. That’s my dream.”

That’s pretty harsh. Gilliam seems like a generous, thoughtful man, with plenty of interests outside of football. I bet “Have Some Love” is a song Gilliam would appreciate, and he deserves some since it is “so hard to find”. Even after the news broke this week of his latest demotion, Gilliam appeared ready to advance a sort of poetics of football.

And then just Friday morning he added:

True words for everyone. But in a sense, is it also (or still) true that Gilliam has been the 2016 Seahawks’ greatest X factor, since the “X” in that equation was always the unknown range involved in the forking paths to the high and low roads of Gilliam’s various potentials. If Seattle’s failure to develop a dependable tackle dooms the season, it’s primarily because after a porous offensive line caused the team to fall apart in the playoffs against the Carolina Panthers in January, John Schneider and the organization made Gilliam’s move to left tackle the key to the Seahawks’ offseason offensive line plan.

It may not be that that process was wrong, the first hints of which we heard right here in a “Real in the Field Gulls” podcast last November when guest Danny O’Neil told Kenneth Arthur and Danny Kelly about the designs to let Okung leave and move Gilliam into his spot. After all, Gilliam had looked solid for most of 2015 after adjusting quickly to the move from tight end, and his athleticism seemed ripe enough continue expanding his faculties at the highest-leverage side. But Carroll said in the summer he and Tom Cable would prefer to see the offensive line continuity settled earlier in the season than last year, and since they’re still making shifts in the lineup in week 13 that clearly has not happened. We thought the issue would be center again, but (aside from a few health scrapes) the interior has been a marvel: The unsteadiness on the line this year began with whatever’s got into Gilliam, so the dominoes fall from the initial decision to trust him there—prompted perhaps in part because of how the Seahawks protected better after Okung went out with a separated shoulder in that Panthers divisional round game.

Which makes it a sort of zemblanitous—the opposite of serendipitous—overlap that Gilliam loses his role this week, with the Panthers dropping into town with their own set of dominoes crashing around them. Carolina opted to stay on the West Coast after their trip to Oakland last week to acclimate to the time zone difference before visiting Seattle, but made the curious choice to stay in the same hotel and use the same practice facility as when they prepared for the Super Bowl last February. The Panthers, who had won 17 of 18 games since losing to the Seahawks in the 2014 playoffs, lost that game and eight of their next 12 leading up to this Sunday’s contest.

Carolina retains much of its attack as a front-four unit with Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short typically presenting twin mismatches from the defensive tackle spots, so this will be a test more for Justin Britt, Germain Ifedi and Mark Glowinski than the tackles—unless the Panthers decide to use the looping stunts the Buccaneers tried so effectively last week. Charles Johnson is old and Kony Ealy is less of a factor from the edge, but Carolina still combines as one of the best sacking squads in the league, taking the quarterback down once every 13.5 snaps. The Panthers also have held opposing rushers to the lowest yards per carry average of any team, which will once again pressure Seattle to choose between exposing Thomas Rawls or Russell Wilson to further injury.

However, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly seems unready to play once again after suffering a strange compound concussion-knee injury against the New Orleans Saints on November 17, which should expose more run fits (although the Raiders ran 31 times for just 56 yards a week ago) and Carolina’s pass coverage has been lousy in the absence of Josh Norman this year. (Short is also questionable for the game with a twisted back, but was a full practice participant Thursday.)

2015 NFL MVP “Scooter” Newton (as O’Neil calls him) also doesn’t present the same kind of omnipotent threat that he did a year ago, with the lowest completion rate of his career (55.8 percent) and an adjusted net yards per attempt somewhere between his 2012 and 2013 averages. Cam Newton’s sack rate is up and both his rushing average and rushing frequency are down, although to blame Newton’s attitude or a Super Bowl hangover for these performance problems means ignoring the radical rash of injuries on the Panthers’ offensive line. With three starters on injured reserve and down to their third center, it will be a good chance to welcome Michael Bennett back into the lineup and try to ugly up the game for the Carolina offense.

The Panthers face likely playoff elimination with a loss, and will want to extend their winning streak against the Seahawks, but Seattle is determined to shore up its weaknesses in time for the postseason. North Carolina has a robust textile industry, and both Newton and Gilliam are learning that competition is the fabric of the NFL and the league has no problem pulling out a loose thread from the playoff pattern it’s weaving.