Carolina Panthers

It was Taylor Heinicke’s turn to take a beating for Panthers. But that has to stop.

Carolina Panthers backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke couldn’t tuck his towel back into his waistband in the third quarter of Sunday night’s game. That’s how hurt his left elbow was.

He was hit by Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett in the second quarter of the 24-10 loss, Carolina’s seventh straight, after releasing a pass. Jarrett was flagged for unnecessary roughness — a late flag linebacker Luke Kuechly, who sprinted onto the field after the hit, argued for as Heinicke writhed on the field in agony.

Third-string quarterback Kyle Allen came in for Heinicke and completed all four of his pass attempts for 38 yards in his short stint. Heinicke, meanwhile, ran to the locker room, then ran out with a heavy wrap on his left arm. He got a brace strapped on, and then re-entered the game after the two-minute warning in the second quarter.

He finished the game 33 for 53 with 274 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions.

But he also took an absolute beating.

He was hit seven times and sacked twice. Sometimes he landed painfully on his left arm, which he kept motionless by his side unless he was taking a snap.

After two of the hits, referees went over to him to check on him. Head coach Ron Rivera wondered if Heinicke needed to come out of the game.

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Carolina Panthers quarterback Taylor Heinicke holds his left arm as he is attended to by team physicians. Heinicke was tackled by Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett during second quarter action at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, December 23, 2018. The Falcons defeated the Panthers 24-10. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

“He was gutting it out,” said Rivera after. “I looked at him a couple of times and he would kind of give me a nod that he was OK. So we left him in there and he tried to do some things out there.”

In the locker room after the game, Heinicke had to unroll his socks with one hand, his left arm clamped painfully at his side.

He did not want to expand on the nature of his injury, or its severity. It’s safe to assume his status for next week’s season finale is questionable.

But he was firm, despite the emotion that threatened to spill out of his eyes and cracked out of his voice, on why he insisted on staying in the game Sunday.

“Obviously I want to be out there for those guys,” he said of his teammates. “Those guys are awesome. And they believe in me. So wanted to give my all for them, and I wasn’t coming out of that game.”

And he didn’t want a repeat of what happened to him around Christmas last year, when he played for Houston. He was concussed from a hit he took shortly after entering a game.

“I wasn’t going to let that happen again,” he said. “I’ve waited too long and I’ve worked too hard. That’s all I want to do, is go out there and play.”

His teammates lauded Heinicke’s toughness.

“The guy’s got a lot of heart. You saw the hits he took out there, man,” running back Christian McCaffrey said. “Keeps getting up. Keeps leading us. That means a lot, even just to come back in the game … stuff doesn’t go right … if you’ve got a guy who can continue to fight and continue to give his best, you can get behind that. That meant a lot to all of us.”

It was admirable. But just as it has been to watch franchise quarterback Cam Newton take brutal hits with a hurt shoulder for the past two years, watching Heinicke became painful as the game unfolded Sunday.

Setting the stage

The Panthers (6-9) did everything they could for Heinicke, a former Old Dominion star in his first NFL start, as Newton sat while he recovers from a shoulder injury.

They made Heinicke T-shirts that had a playful message and nod to Newton’s nickname for him: A green Heinicken-style beer bottle, but instead of the beer brand, the bottle said “Heinicke.”

In a profound and powerful gesture, the team also reserved a seat inside Bank of America Stadium for Heinicke’s late father, Brett. He died when Heinicke was in college, and Heinicke’s touchdown celebration of tapping his left shoulder and pointing to the sky honors Brett’s memory.

“If he were here right now, he’d be trying to get in (this room) and tell me how proud he is of me,” Heinicke said after the game.

The Panthers even scripted the perfect drive to open the game, and get him into a rhythm early.

Heinicke fed McCaffrey as a running back and a receiver and spread the ball around an eight-minute, 14-play drive. The offense was methodical, but played fast within that and even went no-huddle a few times. They converted two third downs and scored a touchdown to cap the drive, as Heinicke and rookie tight end Ian Thomas both adjusted the end of a play to connect in the end zone.

Despite the usual thrill of a Newton-led game being absent, it was hard for Sunday’s crowd not to root for Heinicke.

He even gave his first touchdown ball away to Thomas, because it was Thomas’ first as well. That’s downright endearing.

It’s been clear all week that coaches and teammates also think highly of Heinicke and hope he performs well enough to ultimately take over the backup position long-term.

But can they really get a fair evaluation?

They did everything they could for him to get him prepared for his first start, but the big problem was what the Panthers couldn’t do for Heinicke.

It’s the very same thing they haven’t been able to do for Newton on a consistent basis for years.

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Carolina Panthers quarterback Taylor Heinicke (6) gets tripped up by Atlanta Falcons defensive end Bruce Irvin (52) during the second half at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on Sunday, December 23, 2018. The Falcons won 24-10. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

A huge problem continues

Newton’s ability to bounce back from those kinds of hits — and we’re talking in-the-pocket hits that are the responsibility of the line, here — is well-known after his eight years in the league. It’s a point of bitter pride — he shouldn’t have to absorb the hits, but it’s remarkable that he can, and has for so long.

But it hides a lot, too.

With Newton out on Sunday, it was even easier than usual to see what an impossible situation it has been to play behind this re-built, patched Panthers offensive line for the past eight games.

Like the Panthers, this offensive line started the season with promise. Absent injured starting left tackle Matt Kalil and starting right tackle Daryl Williams, the line gave up 10 sacks through the first eight games...but 21 through the last eight. Backup left tackle Chris Clark is also pretty banged-up, and the Panthers don’t even have a public return date for Kalil.

What’s the plan, guys?

It has long been unacceptable to see Newton, at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, take these hits in the pocket. It was unacceptable to see the 6-1, 210-pound Heinicke take them, too.

Carolina is giving itself the reputation as a team that throws its quarterbacks, from the face of the franchise to the backup, out behind a line that is probably going to let them get abused.

So you’re hurt? No matter. Bite your mouthguard, here comes another one.

The Panthers need to go out and get a long-term backup, but who is going to want the job?

Did you see what they do to their backups out in Charlotte?

And if the Panthers draft a quarterback this spring, what rookie can develop sound mechanics behind a line like that? It’s enough to make a kid start hearing ghosts.

The Panthers drafted Williams in the fourth round in 2015 and he earned All-Pro honors last season before suffering two knee injuries, one season-ending, this fall.

Taylor Moton, whom the Panthers drafted in the second round in 2017, shows real promise as a right tackle and, maybe more importantly, at left tackle.

But that can’t simply be the end of the road. The Panthers must continue to add quality depth to their offensive line every year, and they must develop young players. They can’t simply hope for durability, when they have dealt with two “position catastrophes” on their offensive line in three seasons.

They must plan for it, and do it now.

Because Heinicke looks right now like the stunt double sent in to get pushed off the building so the star won’t get hurt.

Except as this twisted plotline continues to unfold in Carolina, even the leading actor, Newton, gets pushed off the building too.

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