Panthers backup tight end Ben Hartsock is the human good-luck charm.
Hartsock has played 10 NFL seasons, and made the playoffs in seven of them.
After a two-year hiatus during his first two seasons with the Panthers, the blocking specialist is excited to be back in familiar territory this postseason.
“Being a part of this team has been gratifying for me, more so than other playoffs teams because I’ve seen where we’ve come from,” Hartsock said recently. “When you’re drafted to the Colts in ’04, they pretty much set their calendar based around going to the playoffs. Those Jets teams, they weren’t necessarily favorites, but we were strong going in.”
Hartsock, 33, the Colts’ third-round pick out of Ohio State, has been to the playoffs with all five of his teams. He went twice with Indianapolis, once with Tennessee and Atlanta, and twice during his only two seasons with the Jets in 2009-10.
Hartsock was on injured reserve with a toe injury in 2008 when the Falcons made the playoffs behind rookie quarterback Matt Ryan.
During a practice before a playoff game a few years ago, Jets coach Rex Ryan asked players with previous playoff experience to step forward. Hartsock was one of the last men standing.
“There were just so few guys that have been to multiple years (of) playoffs,” Hartsock said.
At the other end of the spectrum is Panthers backup quarterback Derek Anderson, who is making his playoff debut in his ninth season.
Anderson shook his head when discussing Hartsock’s playoff history, and jokingly referred to his teammate as a “dirtbag.”
Anderson has taken only a handful of snaps this season behind starter Cam Newton, and will see action Sunday against San Francisco (13-4) only if Newton gets hurt or the Panthers (12-4) are winning big at the end of the game.
But Anderson is thrilled finally to be a part of a playoff team.
“Obviously, it’s a goal every year. But to actually be here and have a bye and to think about the reality of where we are,” he said. “Not to get ahead of ourselves, but once you get in it you’ve got a shot. That’s the excitement for me.”
“Do I play? No. But I still help out, there’s a chance I could play,” Anderson added. “But to be on a team that’s come from as average as we were two years ago and just watch the progression and get in the dance and know that we’ve got a legitimate chance to win the big one is cool.”
The closest Anderson came to making the playoffs previously was with Cleveland in 2007. Needing a win at Cincinnati in Week 16, the Browns lost 19-14 as Anderson, who was a Pro Bowler that season, threw four interceptions in the 20-mph winds at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Browns beat San Francisco the following week to finish 10-6, but lost the tiebreaker to Pittsburgh.
“I’m still frustrated and (ticked) off about that game seven years ago, six years ago, whatever it was,” Anderson said. “Just to be so close and then you see other guys on other teams that are always in it.”
That would be Hartsock, who has four catches for 21 yards in nine postseason games. Hartsock went to two AFC championship games with the Jets, but has never made it to the Super Bowl.
Hartsock’s best statistical playoff game was in 2007 with Tennessee in a wild-card loss to San Diego. Hartsock caught three passes for 16 yards, and snapped the ball to Titans quarterback Vince Young on a trick play.
“We ran a swinging-gate when I played for Tennessee. All the offensive line went to the left. Receiver to the right and I was the only guy snapping it to Vince Young,” Hartsock said. “Vince was supposed to throw it to me, but he didn’t.”
Hartsock left the Panthers’ Week 17 win at Atlanta early after aggravating a right knee injury. An MRI exam revealed no ligament damage in the knee, and Hartsock is probable for the divisional-round game against the 49ers after practicing all week.
Hartsock re-signed with the Panthers last offseason on a one-year deal, and again will be eligible for free agency. He’d like to stay in Charlotte, where he’s served as a nice blocking complement to pass-catching tight end Greg Olsen.
Whatever team signs Hartsock will be getting a good blocker and a better talisman.
“I try to get the people in the front offices to realize that,” Hartsock said, laughing. “They don’t realize those kind of little things, (like) magic.”
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