Carolina Panthers

Could Panthers center Ryan Kalil’s return solve one of team’s biggest problems?

Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil spent his weekend off watching his daughters’ soccer games and stopping by Bank of America Stadium to continue rehabbing his neck.

The latter activity has Kalil on the verge of returning to the lineup for the first time in six weeks.

Kalil, a five-time Pro Bowler, has missed the past five games with a neck issue that neither he nor the Panthers have fully explained. But Kalil said he was “full-go” Tuesday for the first time since his neck flared up during warmups before the Week 2 game against Buffalo.

“Made a lot of progress and just excited to be back out there,” Kalil said.

Kalil says he feels optimistic about his chances of being ready for Sunday’s game at Chicago, “but we’ll keep rehabbing, keep working and see how it goes.”

Kalil’s return should help the Panthers’ run game, which has ground to a virtual halt the last two weeks except when quarterback Cam Newton has the ball.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said backup center Tyler Larsen has a lot of upside, but noted that Kalil is on another level in terms of identifying defensive fronts and making line calls.

“When you see the communication and how he ID’s stuff, it’s a little bit different obviously just because Tyler doesn’t have Ryan’s experience, yet,” Rivera said. “It will mean a lot in terms of communication (and) handling his teammates and other players.”

Kalil said a lot of the Panthers’ run-blocking issues have resulted from miscommunication. He mentioned seeing plays on film during which two linemen blocked the same guy, leaving another defender unblocked.

“Those are just dumb mistakes,” he said. “Those are things you can control. It has nothing to do with game plan, nothing to do with play calling.”

But Kalil downplayed the notion that he’ll be a cure-all for what’s ailed the line in terms of run blocking.

“It’s not always just what the center can say or can’t say. Everybody sort of plays in their own little bubble,” Kalil said. “So I think it’s on each guy to understand their assignments. At center you can only make so many calls but everybody’s got to do their job and focus in on their job.”

But left guard Andrew Norwell, while praising the work of Larsen, said Kalil’s experience is invaluable to the offensive line group.

“He’s the leader of the O-line room. Just to have him back feels great,” Norwell said. “Tyler had a tough role to fill. He’s filled it before and did a good in there. Kalil being back, (his) veteran leadership is good for the O-line.”

Kalil missed eight games in 2016 when he underwent season-ending shoulder surgery. He said recently the neck injury was not related to his shoulder issue, but was aggravating nonetheless.

“Injuries are always frustrating. You can ask anybody around the league. We’ve had a lot of them this season,” he said. “You train all offseason. You come in, try to get in the best shape you can. You just never know when you’re going to get nicked up or what’s going to happen. ... It’s been frustrating because you can’t will it back to health.”

Kalil, 32, is particularly effective pulling and blocking in space. Getting him back could be key to rookie running back Christian McCaffrey breaking a big play on screens and other plays on the edge.

But first there is the matter of Kalil getting back in shape -- and quickly.

“I haven’t done anything in five weeks,” he said. “You can run on the treadmill and do that all you want. But it’s different running around in pads and hitting people and wrestling big guys.”

The Panthers are just happy to have their most experienced wrestler – and communicator – back.

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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