The scene at the end of the Carolina Panthers’ Monday morning practice was eerily similar to the scene from Saturday’s session:
A veteran player on the ground, screaming and writhing in pain while his teammates all took a knee a hush settled over the practice field.
Players usually know when an injury is bad. And unfortunately that appeared to the case with cornerback Ross Cockrell, who — after colliding with wideout Torrey Smith in the end zone — yelled: “My leg is broke! My leg is broke!”
Cockrell, who was competing for a starting role, was injured two days after starting right tackle Daryl Williams went down during the first full-pads practice of training camp. He’s scheduled for season-ending surgery after breaking both bones in his lower left leg.
Before camp was a week old, the Panthers had lost two key players for a significant stretch of time and were reminded no matter how watered down NFL training camp has become — with required days off and the elimination of two-a-days — having big, strong athletes running into each other will result in injuries.
“It’s the unfortunate nature of this game,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “Hopefully (Cockrell) will be all right in due time.”
Rivera is a member of an NFL rules subcommittee that is trying to make the game safer, especially when it comes to head injuries.
Rivera and several defensive players had to remind rookie safety Rashaan Gaulden about not leading with his head Monday after the third-round pick from Tennessee laid out receiver Jarius Wright with a vicious hit.
Wright was OK, but Gaulden might have been ejected had the hit occurred in a game. A new rule this year penalizes a player 15 yards (and a potential ejection) for lowering his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet to an opponent anywhere on the field.
Rivera said he told Gaulden: “Hey, that’s going to be very suspect because it falls right into the ram, butt and spear idea of using the helmet. So we’ve got to make sure these young people understand it.”
Rivera thinks the NFL and other sanctioning bodies need to continue initiatives that teach proper tackling technique at the youth level to try to get helmet-to-helmet hits out of the game.
But there’s nothing the league or the Panthers’ medical staff could have done to prevent the injuries to Cockrell and Williams, who dislocated his kneecap and tore his MCL while pass-blocking during a team drill. The Panthers are hoping Williams can recover without surgery, but the second-team All-Pro from 2017 is still expected to miss significant time.
Rivera said Williams misstepped when taking his pass set, which played a part in his going down awkwardly and buckling his knee while at least one defensive lineman pushed him backward.
Cockrell, a Charlotte native who starred at Charlotte Latin and Duke, was running across the end zone covering Smith. When Smith went to the ground for a low pass, Cockrell foot got caught under Smith’s body at a gruesome angle. The sound of Cockrell’s bone cracking was audible on videos taken by reporters standing about 30 yards away.
‘Sometimes you can’t prevent it’
Both were the types of normal, run-of-the-mill plays that sometimes end badly in a collision sport.
“Football’s a physical sport. There’s going to be contact pretty much every play,” Panthers cornerback James Bradberry said. “Sometimes you can’t prevent it.”
Rivera said Cockrell’s injury felt worse because it happened near the close of practice. In fact, Rivera called players up and ended it after Cockrell was carted to the locker room with his lower left leg in a brace.
The Panthers certainly aren’t the only team that has been hit by injuries.
Packers safety Kentrell Brice left Monday’s practice on a cart with an apparent leg injury. Steelers guard Ramon Foster will miss a month with a knee injury.
San Diego lost two players for the season during the first week — safety Jason Verrett (Achilles) and rookie tight end Austin Roberts (ACL).
There will be more — many more — guys go down leading to and continuing into the regular season. Advancements in equipment, medicine and training techniques won’t change that.
The Panthers hope they have the depth to overcome the injuries.
Taylor Moton, a second-round pick last year, has stepped in for Williams. Rookie Donte Jackson, this year’s second-round selection, will see increased reps at the corner spot opposite Bradberry.
Three years ago, the Panthers lost No. 1 wideout Kelvin Benjamin to a season-ending knee injury at camp and proceeded to win their first 14 games on their way to the Super Bowl.
No one cancels the season when injuries strike in the Next-Man-Up Football League.
“It’s very tough because one of the key components of making a Super Bowl run is having everybody healthy. And when you have prominent guys go down, it’s tough,” Bradberry said.
“You’ve just got to have that next-man-up mentality. And that’s what we have here.”