We interrupt our offseason Panthers programming which bulges with uncertainty, angst and general manager Dave Gettleman doing the cap-challenged rap to bring you the following security blanket.
Luke Kuechly is the best middle linebacker in the NFL. Hes only 22. And he isnt going anywhere.
Kuechly doesnt need a contract extension at least not yet like coach Ron Rivera and quarterback Cam Newton do. He doesnt need someone to hold his hand this offseason so he wont get into trouble. He doesnt need someone to tell him to go back to college he will start taking online classes in March in pursuit of the degree he surely will earn one day.
All Kuechly really needs is another game. And that, sadly, is what he doesnt have after Sundays 23-10 home playoff loss to San Francisco.
One thing thats kind of a bummer is were done with playing football, Kuechly said this week as he took a break from clearing out his locker. Thats one of the things Im going to miss playing, practicing, being around all the guys. Its a grind and its tough and everything. But you dont realize how much you enjoy it until its over.
I reminded Kuechly he still has the Pro Bowl at the end of this month.
Oh yeah, yeah, he said. Forgot about that.
Kuechly was hoping not to play in the Pro Bowl, because Super Bowl participants cant. Instead, the Panthers loss means the former Boston College standout will go to Hawaii with mixed feelings.
I was hoping I wasnt going to have to think about that for a while, and hopefully not at all, Kuechly said. But it will be exciting.
His tone of voice indicated he considers the trip about as exciting as a journey to pick up the dry cleaning, but he will warm up to it. Kuechly is going to make the Pro Bowl many times before his career is over. That he is a legitimate contender for NFL Defensive Player of the Year in only his second season is startling only if you havent watched him play.
On the NFLs No. 2 defense, Kuechly is the best player. His instincts are phenomenal. His tackling is textbook. His celebrations are muted. He is the old-school, clean-cut player who everyone loves, the one who makes Jon Gruden gush and female fans hold up flirtatious signs.
In my unofficial count of Panthers fan jerseys at the stadium Sunday, at least 80 percent of the kids wore Newtons No. 1. But of those wearing jerseys who are 18 and older, Kuechlys No. 59 might have led the pack.
I moderated a panel last week at the Observer for 350 Panthers fans. We asked questions to three former Panthers players. Mark Carrier a standout wide receiver for Carolinas first teams and now the Panthers director of player engagement was on the panel.
Like most fathers, Carrier is very protective of his daughter. He joked that he never would allow her to get married.
But if she did, Carrier said, Id allow her to marry Luke Kuechly.
Is Kuechly perfect? No.
He missed a diving tackle on Colin Kaepernicks touchdown run Sunday. He had a critical pass-interference penalty in the Buffalo loss and almost another one on the final play of the New England win.
But he turns potential 15-yard gains into 2-yard gains, over and over. He has become a better blitzer and had Carolinas only sack Sunday. He tied for the teams 2013 interception lead with four. In an NFC South division brimming with hard-to-cover tight ends, Kuechly makes every one of them earn every yard.
If the Panthers are going to have back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in 2014, Kuechly and Newton will be the cornerstones.
I think were headed up, Kuechly said. Weve got some guys who have been around a while. Weve got some younger guys. Its a good mix, a good set of building blocks.
Chief among those blocks is Kuechly. So when you start thinking about everything the Panthers need this offseason, make yourself feel better. Dont forget what they already have.
Fowler: 704-358-5140; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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