Carolina Panthers

It's time for Panthers to shut down Luke Kuechly for season

Previewing Carolina Panthers versus Washington on Monday Night Football

Charlotte Observer reporters Joseph Person and Jourdan Rodrigue preview Monday night's NFL matchup between Carolina and Washington.
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Charlotte Observer reporters Joseph Person and Jourdan Rodrigue preview Monday night's NFL matchup between Carolina and Washington.

A season that began with the Carolina Panthers’ ham-handed handling of quarterback Cam Newton’s possible concussion in a Week 1 loss at Denver could end with their best defensive player missing the final six games with a head injury.

If 2015 was the year of the dab for the Panthers, then 2016 has been the year of the concussion.

For the past two weeks, Panthers coach Ron Rivera has said the team had no plans to shut down Pro Bowl middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who hasn’t played since a scary-looking concussion in a Nov. 17 win against New Orleans.

But the team’s stance seemed to shift Saturday.

About two hours after Rivera said little about Kuechly’s status during a conference call with reporters, the Panthers published a story on their website saying Kuechly had cleared the concussion protocol.

But the Panthers continued to list Kuechly as questionable for Monday night’s game at Washington, and Rivera was non-committal about whether Kuechly would actually play.

“We are excited to have Luke healthy and cleared from the protocol,” Rivera said. “I know he is extremely motivated to get back on the field and help us win games. Whether he plays this week or not, I don’t know. We have to balance our enthusiasm with what’s best for Luke and the team long term.”

Hate to be the buzz-kill realist here, but Carolina’s not making the playoffs. ... So sitting Luke Kuechly and saving him from any more unnecessary shots to the head is the smart thing to do.

Kuechly’s status for the “Monday Night Football” game presumably will be tied to what happens in Sunday’s action.

The Panthers have less than a 1 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to a New York Times’ playoff calculator, and probably will be eliminated by the time players sit down for dinner Sunday evening.

An Atlanta victory over the 1-12 San Francisco 49ers – the Falcons are a 14-point favorite – or a Tampa Bay upset of Dallas would knock the Panthers (5-8) from contention in the NFC South following a three-year run of division titles.

We have to balance our enthusiasm with what’s best for Luke and the team long term.

Ron Rivera

The Panthers could stay alive for a wild-card berth even with an Atlanta win. But they need a dozen games to break right for them over the final three weeks, not the least of which is having Chicago (3-10) win out.

Hate to be the buzz-kill realist here, but Carolina’s not making the playoffs.

Whether it happens Sunday (likely) or in Week 16, that dream is going to die. So sitting Kuechly and saving him from any more unnecessary shots to the head is the smart thing to do.

Kuechly has given no indication he wants to shut it down – at least through his actions; he still hasn’t spoken to Charlotte reporters.

He ran through drills and hit the blocking sleds and tackling dummies all week and was listed as a full participant each day on the official injury report.

Of course, Kuechly wants to play. That’s true of most players dealing with injuries – brain, back or otherwise.

It’s not Luke Kuechly’s reaction to his last concussion we should be worried about. ... It’s the frequency of Kuechly’s concussions that is alarming.

But Kuechly now has had two concussions in consecutive years that sidelined him for at least a month. There’s been more public outcry following his most recent concussion, because millions of fans watched in high-def as Kuechly left the field sobbing on the back of a cart.

But it’s not Kuechly’s reaction we should be worried about – two Panthers players told me they had similar crying episodes immediately following concussions. It’s the frequency of Kuechly’s concussions that is alarming.

Dan Morgan, like Kuechly a Panthers’ first-round pick and linebacker, retired at 30 after a series of concussions.

Kuechly, only the second NFL player ever to win Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in successive seasons, will be 30 when his current contract expires after the 2021 season.

Because of the position he plays and his history with head injuries, Kuechly will be at risk for additional concussions as long as he continues to play.

But the Panthers at least can remove him from harm’s way the rest of this forgettable season.

Kuechly is among eight Panthers players who have been placed in the concussion protocol a league-leading nine times in 2016 (rookie cornerback Daryl Worley has been in twice).

Left tackle Michael Oher hasn’t played since Week 3 after reporting post-concussion symptoms, leaving his future in question.

It’s fair to wonder whether getting investigated (by the NFL and NFL Players Association) for letting Newton stay in the game for the potential game-winning drive at Denver has prompted the team’s doctors and training staff to err on the side of caution when evaluating players in the protocol.

Given what we know and all we still have yet to learn about brain injuries, there’s no shame in playing it safe.

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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