In My Opinion

Fowler: Panthers' Kuechly proves himself but hoped to play one more game

sfowler@charlotteobserver.comJanuary 16, 2014 

We interrupt our offseason Panthers programming – which bulges with uncertainty, angst and general manager Dave Gettleman doing the “cap-challenged” rap – to bring you the following security blanket.

Luke Kuechly is the best middle linebacker in the NFL. He’s only 22. And he isn’t going anywhere.

Kuechly doesn’t need a contract extension – at least not yet – like coach Ron Rivera and quarterback Cam Newton do. He doesn’t need someone to hold his hand this offseason so he won’t get into trouble. He doesn’t need someone to tell him to go back to college – he will start taking online classes in March in pursuit of the degree he surely will earn one day.

All Kuechly really needs is another game. And that, sadly, is what he doesn’t have after Sunday’s 23-10 home playoff loss to San Francisco.

“One thing that’s kind of a bummer is we’re done with playing football,” Kuechly said this week as he took a break from clearing out his locker. “That’s one of the things I’m going to miss – playing, practicing, being around all the guys. It’s a grind and it’s tough and everything. But you don’t realize how much you enjoy it until it’s over.”

I reminded Kuechly he still has the Pro Bowl at the end of this month.

“Oh yeah, yeah,” he said. “Forgot about that.”

Kuechly was hoping not to play in the Pro Bowl, because Super Bowl participants can’t. Instead, the Panthers’ loss means the former Boston College standout will go to Hawaii with mixed feelings.

“I was hoping I wasn’t going to have to think about that for a while, and hopefully not at all,” Kuechly said. “But it will be exciting.”

His tone of voice indicated he considers the trip about as exciting as a journey to pick up the dry cleaning, but he will warm up to it. Kuechly is going to make the Pro Bowl many times before his career is over. That he is a legitimate contender for NFL Defensive Player of the Year in only his second season is startling only if you haven’t watched him play.

On the NFL’s No. 2 defense, Kuechly is the best player. His instincts are phenomenal. His tackling is textbook. His celebrations are muted. He is the old-school, clean-cut player who everyone loves, the one who makes Jon Gruden gush and female fans hold up flirtatious signs.

In my unofficial count of Panthers fan jerseys at the stadium Sunday, at least 80 percent of the kids wore Newton’s No. 1. But of those wearing jerseys who are 18 and older, Kuechly’s No. 59 might have led the pack.

I moderated a panel last week at the Observer for 350 Panthers fans. We asked questions to three former Panthers players. Mark Carrier – a standout wide receiver for Carolina’s first teams and now the Panthers’ director of player engagement – was on the panel.

Like most fathers, Carrier is very protective of his daughter. He joked that he never would allow her to get married.

“But if she did,” Carrier said, “I’d allow her to marry Luke Kuechly.”

Is Kuechly perfect? No.

He missed a diving tackle on Colin Kaepernick’s touchdown run Sunday. He had a critical pass-interference penalty in the Buffalo loss and almost another one on the final play of the New England win.

But he turns potential 15-yard gains into 2-yard gains, over and over. He has become a better blitzer and had Carolina’s only sack Sunday. He tied for the team’s 2013 interception lead with four. In an NFC South division brimming with hard-to-cover tight ends, Kuechly makes every one of them earn every yard.

If the Panthers are going to have back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in 2014, Kuechly and Newton will be the cornerstones.

“I think we’re headed up,” Kuechly said. “We’ve got some guys who have been around a while. We’ve got some younger guys. It’s a good mix, a good set of building blocks.”

Chief among those blocks is Kuechly. So when you start thinking about everything the Panthers need this offseason, make yourself feel better. Don’t forget what they already have.

Fowler: 704-358-5140; sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler

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