Michael Oher is coming off his worst season as a professional, and the Carolina Panthers have him as their starting left tackle.
Both Oher and the Panthers believe they have identified the problems and have worked to fix them. That meant offseason surgery and a return to fundamentals that he feels were lacking in 2014 with his first and only season in Tennessee.
When Carolina came calling with a two-year deal worth $7 million, Oher didn’t want to disappoint his third team in three years.
“It seemed like they wanted me,” Oher said Thursday after the week’s final practice of organized team activities. “I got the (same) feeling going into my rookie year of not wanting to let guys down and guys with a winning culture. For me, it’s about getting back to the basics and fundamentals of doing everything right. Looking myself in the mirror knowing what I have to do and getting better from within.”
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Oher projects to be Carolina’s third left tackle in three years, following the retirement of Jordan Gross after the 2013 season and the failed Byron Bell experiment in 2014.
Oher had four good years in Baltimore to start his career before a nagging toe injury hampered his play in 2013. Oher signed a four-year, $20 million deal with the Titans before the 2014 season, but the injury persisted.
That wasn’t the only thing holding Oher back, though. In interviews since signing with Carolina, Oher has mentioned terms such as “atmosphere,” “culture” and “fundamentals” multiple times.
When pressed, Oher won’t go into specifics. But it appears he doesn’t believe there was a culture of winning in Tennessee, and he disagreed with what he was asked to do at tackle.
With Carolina, he’s trying to make sure he sticks as the long-term answer at left tackle.
“I’m doing everything in my power to make that happen,” Oher said. “I know that I have the abilities and I’m going to put in the correct amount of work to get the job done. (It’s) just being around more guys who are willing to do the same.
“It’s definitely about culture in the NFL. That wins you football games alone.”
According to football analytics site Pro Football Focus, Oher was the 15th-best tackle in the league in his 2009 rookie season. He lost ground in all but one year in the following seasons and eventually bottomed out at 75th of 84 tackles in the Titans’ 2-14 season last year.
Oher had offseason toe surgery and said he feels as good as he ever has as a professional. The Panthers also consulted offensive line coach John Matsko, who has a background with Oher, before signing him.
Matsko coached the Ravens offensive line for Oher’s first two years in the league. He helped the first-round pick make the NFL’s All-Rookie team before joining Ron Rivera’s Panthers staff in 2011.
“Knowing the two of them have a positive relationship, they’ve worked well together,” Rivera said. “He worked very well for coach Matsko, and then at the end of the day he wanted to be here. That’s one of the things that he told us that impressed us. He said he wanted to be here and needed to improve and work on certain things and get back on track. Just hearing that from a player, and then watching him after he signed his contract. He was here and he’s been here since; that’s very pleasing.”
There’s no open competition for the starting left tackle spot like last year between Bell and Nate Chandler. The position has been Oher’s to lose since he signed with the Panthers in March.
Starting at right tackle is Mike Remmers, who was a pleasant surprise for the Panthers during their late-season run to the playoffs. Chandler worked as the second-team right tackle on Thursday, and Jonathan Martin, claimed by Carolina off waivers this offseason, worked as Oher’s backup.
Through a spokesman, Martin declined to speak with the media.
Though his spot is safe, Oher still likes seeing the competition across the offensive line. He compared the atmosphere around the Panthers’ organization to that of the Ravens, which won 64 percent of their games and a Super Bowl while Oher was there.
“They’re competing the right way with fundamentals, technique and with holding each other accountable,” Oher said. “You can tell that these guys have won division championships, but also a bunch of humble guys who know how to work and know what it takes to win.”
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9