Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil joked about the team missing his “good looks” during the two games he was sidelined with a shoulder injury.
Cam Newton wasn’t ready to go that far, but the Panthers quarterback made it clear he was pleased to have his Pro Bowl center back.
“He’s somewhat of my hidden jewel because he does more things probably for a quarterback than anybody in the league,” Newton said. “Sometimes he doesn’t get enough credit for it.”
Kalil returned to practice Tuesday and said he expects to play Thursday night against New Orleans. He plans to wear a harness on his right shoulder, similar to the one worn by middle linebacker Luke Kuechly during the playoffs last season.
Kalil wouldn’t specify the nature of his injury, indicating he didn’t want opponents to target it. He said he’s not sure whether he’ll need surgery after the season.
Kalil rejoins the lineup during an important stretch. The Panthers (3-6) need to get on a hot streak if they hope to win the NFC South a fourth consecutive year.
“We’re in a situation now where we’ve got to win games,” Kalil said. “We had a slow start to the season, didn’t finish a couple games. Felt like we started getting in a rhythm and then same thing happened again.”
Kalil, 31, injured his shoulder in the first half against Arizona on Oct. 30. He lobbied hard to play the following at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, his home stadium when he played at Southern Cal.
Kalil made the trip to L.A., but coaches and training staff held him out rather than risk further injury.
“It was eerie being in the Coliseum and watching your teammates play on that field,” he said. “I was trying to do everything I could and the team gave me its best shot. But ultimately they made the decision not to have me out there – which was probably smart.”
Kalil also sat out last week’s 20-17 loss to Kansas City, while backup Gino Gradkowski started for the second consecutive week.
The Panthers failed to reach 100 rushing yards in the two games without Kalil, whose Pro Bowl berth last season was the fifth of his career.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said the communication along the line should improve with Kalil back in the fold.
“Just through the experience, Ryan can help in terms of getting the calls out quicker, helping to ID certain things,” Rivera said. “That’s all a part of what the center has to do in this system. An experienced guy – a guy that’s been in this system for six seasons now – it’s very helpful.”