"Mike Tolbert looks like a vending machine!" - B.W. Smith, at Panthers camp
In all the wrap-ups of the training camp weekend we've had on CSR the focus has been on the rookies, the unknown quantities, and the players who surprised us. We didn't place a premium on the guys we know are solid, but in the case of Mike Tolbert he deserves recognition. B.W. was right, Tolbert is massive; you can't accurately convey what a 5'9", 250lb running back looks like until you see him in person. He's the kind of guy who looks like he's wearing pads when he isn't, and what's more shocking is that he moves like a player thirty pounds lighter.
The cliche 'as good as advertised' was used by me in describing his weekend, but the reality is Tolbert was more than advertised. Expectation had us believe he would be a lead blocked, a bulldozer, and a set of sure hands out of the backfield. Based on how the Panthers were using him in Spartanburg he looks to be a far more creative facet of the offense. On almost half of his snaps Tolbert was lined up outside at a wide receiver position. He didn't run deep routes, but the threat of him caused mismatches. When the ball was snapped he usually stayed close to the line of scrimmage, giving Cam Newton a wide option for an outlet if needed. This was exciting because it doesn't take the most erudite football mind to see the value in having a blocking back out wide in this offense. It gives the Panthers a lead-blocker on option plays, and the prospect of giving Smitty a blocker on those bubble screens is very exciting.
More after the jump
It has been a long time since you saw the Carolina Panthers utilize a true do-everything running back. Obviously DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are amazing, nobody is questioning that, but they're far more traditional in their styles. You'll need to cast your mind back to the Dan Henning offensive era to find a RB who was used with creativity, and that was perennial third option Nick Goings.
Lets get this out of the way quickly: Nick Goings is no Mike Tolbert, there's no comparison from a talent standpoint. Tolbert is bigger, more powerful, and has a more natural feel for the game; but that doesn't mean their games don't resemble each other. On Sundays, Goings was everywhere (albeit for a brief time each week), he played special teams, took snaps at fullback, worked on the goalline, and subbed as needed at RB. Every team needs a back like this who isn't going to inflate the box score, but glues everything together-- finally the Carolina Panthers have that again.
During a deflated 2004 season that saw both Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster miss games due to injury, Goings stepped in and amassed over 800 yards rushing, and 6 touchdowns. He wasn't dynamic, he wasn't a threat, but he was a workhorse week in, week out; exactly what we can expect to see from Tolbert.
In Spartanburg we saw a player who was quickly comfortable in Rob Chudzinski's scheme, clearly indicative of their time together in San Diego. Tolbert displayed soft hands as a receiver, a powerful style as a runner, and a reliable back-field blocker. It's still remarkable to see a man his size move like he does, and if given a head of steam there's little defensive backs can do. Think about Tolbert from a defensive coordinator's perspective. He's lined up where a wide receiver would normally be, what do you do? Commit a cornerback to him and hope he doesn't get the ball, because he'll run right over that corner. Send a linebacker out wide to account for him in man coverage-- now you're giving Cam Newton all the room in the world to work. Put a safety on Tolbert? Okay, you better be comfortable leaving the center of the field open for Greg Olsen. There's no good option to cover him in an offense that has this man weapons.
Based on what we saw during the first weekend in camp Mike Tolbert may only get 8-10 touches a game, but he represents a constant offensive threat that defensive coordinators will need to account for. He adds a new wrinkle, and one I think Panthers fans will fall in love with this fall.