It seemed as though the Carolina Panthers needed to buy just one more week without Charles Tillman and then they’d be set in the secondary.
To be this healthy this late in the season is unheard of in the NFL, so the Panthers seemed due for a big blow.
It came in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 38-0 rout of the Atlanta Falcons when cornerback Bené Benwikere fractured his leg on an attempted tackle. Benwikere is done for the season, and the Panthers have a serious issue in the defensive backfield.
“I will sit down and we will get an opportunity to visit with (general manager) Dave (Gettleman) and his crew and the coaches,” coach Ron Rivera said, “but we are going to have to do something.”
What’s most concerning for the Panthers is that the injury may not hurt immediately. Carolina can get by these next three weeks to get enough wins to get the No. 1 seed in the NFC and secure homefield advantage through the conference playoffs.
But the Panthers will feel the loss of Benwikere in January when they have to stop the visitor’s passing game in the divisional round game.
Carolina has done well this season when Josh Norman and Tillman line up at corner and Benwikere goes to the nickel. But that hasn’t been the case the past four games, and now it won’t be for the rest of the season.
“It’s football,” Tillman said. “That’s what happens. That’s the game we play. That’s the life we chose. It’s all part of the game. You never want to see injuries, but when they happen, yeah it (stinks). It really does.”
Tillman suffered a knee sprain against Tennessee on Nov. 15 and hasn’t played since, though both he and Rivera said he’s “close” to returning. That forced the Panthers to slide Benwikere outside and play Colin Jones at nickel.
The Panthers soon found out Jones, a more natural safety, couldn’t get the job done and coaxed Cortland Finnegan out of retirement.
In last week’s victory over New Orleans, Finnegan made a handful of mental errors, and he made at least one that resulted in a first down for the Falcons on Sunday.
Could Finnegan play outside cornerback? Sure, but even he has said he feels better inside. And he went out with what appeared to be a soft-tissue injury in his leg that’s common for players who haven’t played in some time.
If the Panthers had to play right now, they’d roll Norman out there with cornerback Teddy Williams, who didn’t play college football and has experience with Carolina and short stints with Indianapolis and Arizona.
Jones suffered a groin injury in the Atlanta win, so it’s unclear if he could play even if they wanted him to.
So Carolina is left with two options. The Panthers could elevate Lou Young off the practice squad. He has spent training camp and the entire season with them. Or they could go sign a free agent.
At the top of their list is Robert McClain, a 2010 Panthers draft pick who has bounced around since Carolina cut him in 2011. McClain worked out for the Panthers last month before they signed Finnegan.
With 13 years under his belt, Tillman can’t be rushed back just to fill a hole in Week 15. He wasn’t cleared to practice by Friday, and these Panthers are going to play in January.
Whichever option the Panthers choose, the goal will not be for it to work in Week 15. Rather, they’ll want to figure things out over the next three weeks so that they’ll have a cohesive, healthy unit come the playoffs.