The Panthers will be without at least three starters Sunday at San Diego, and possibly more.
Running back Jonathan Stewart, center Geoff Hangartner and defensive tackle Dwan Edwards did not make the trip Friday when the team departed for California.
Stewart (ankle) and Edwards (wrist) both missed last week’s win against Atlanta, when the Panthers had five starters out. Hangartner sprained his foot against the Falcons, and the training staff did not want to risk any setbacks by having him play against the Chargers.
“It would be unfair to have him play and then have him spend five or six more days in the boot again after he plays,” coach Ron Rivera said Friday. “I’m not sure how effective he’d be, either.”
Hangartner’s injury comes at a time when the Panthers were developing a little consistency along the line, two months after Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil went on injured reserve with a foot injury. Hangartner moved from right guard to center, and Garry Williams has played better of late at Hangartner’s former guard spot.
Jeff Byers, who struggled in an earlier stint at guard, will start at center Sunday. Thomas Austin, a former Clemson player who was signed off the practice squad this month, will back up Byers and Williams.
“That’s discouraging because Geoff is really playing well. You say, ‘He had to replace an All-Pro.’ Well, Geoff has played as well as anybody could expect in that situation, and better,” Rivera said.
“For the last several weeks the line has come together. They’ve kind of jelled. Now it’s going to fall on Jeff Byers and Thomas Austin to get that crew going. We’ll see how they do.”
The Panthers list three players as questionable, including two starters who sat out last week – receiver Brandon LaFell (turf toe) and outside linebacker James Anderson (back).
Rivera said trainer Ryan Vermillion would wait until Sunday before deciding on LaFell’s status. Rivera put LaFell’s chances of playing at better than 50 percent.
Anderson practiced Friday, but said this week he is concerned how his lower back would react after the long flight to San Diego. If Anderson can’t play, Jason Phillips would take his place on the strong side.
Special teams player Colin Jones (groin) missed practice and is questionable.
TRADING PLACES: The Panthers’ hero from their last game against San Diego now plays for the Chargers, and the man tasked with stopping Carolina’s offense that day is the Panthers’ coach.
Tight end Dante Rosario’s 14-yard touchdown catch from Jake Delhomme as time expired gave the Panthers a 26-24 win at San Diego on Sept. 7, 2008. Rivera, then the Chargers’ defensive coordinator, said the Panthers might have gotten away with a penalty on the final play.
“They could have called holding very easily,” Rivera said. “It was a heck of a game.”
Rosario, who played for the Panthers from 2007-10, has nine catches for 86 yards and three touchdowns this season for San Diego.
As for the heartbreaking manner in which the Chargers lost, Rivera said, “It’s no different from a couple we lost this year. It just rips your gut out. You feel you played well enough to win, then have something like that happen.”
HOME AWAY FROM HOME: Rivera, who spent four seasons with the Chargers, still owns a home in San Diego. He and his wife, Stephanie, chose to rent it rather than sell it in a depressed real estate market when Rivera got the job in Charlotte last year.
Rivera’s family will be together this weekend. His daughter, Courtney, who plays softball at UCLA, and his son, Christopher, who works at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., are driving to San Diego to visit.