It was what no one wanted to see – not the 74,000-plus watching at Bank of America Stadium, not the fans watching at home, certainly not the Carolina Panthers’ players and coaches.
And though this time he left the field under his own power rather than on a cart, everyone’s fears about middle linebacker Luke Kuechly were realized a short time later when the team announced the Panthers’ defensive leader was in the concussion protocol. Again.
This one might not have played out as publicly as last season, but Kuechly’s latest concussion left fans concerned and raised questions about his long-term health and future.
“Health is a big thing, man,” Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “You can’t keep having these (concussions). I just pray for him and hope all is well.”
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Kuechly’s concussion was his third in as many seasons and overshadowed the Panthers’ 28-23 loss to Philadelphia on Thursday in a nationally televised matchup between a pair of NFC division leaders.
Kuechly was injured when he took a hit to the left side of his head in the first half. He left the game with about five minutes left before halftime, and initially it looked like trainers and doctors were checking Kuechly for a neck injury.
“Last year was a little scarier. This year I just saw Luke walking away and it looked like he had full consciousness,” cornerback James Bradberry said. “I figured it was his shoulder or something.”
Bradberry was referring to last year’s home against New Orleans, when Kuechly became the face of the NFL’s concussion problem when he was carted off sobbing and struggling to catch his breath after getting hit in another Thursday night game.
His concussion against the Eagles wasn’t as obvious. Bradberry said after the game he didn’t realize Kuechly had sustained one.
Kuechly was injured on a LeGarrette Blount run inside the Panthers’ 10 shortly after a Cam Newton interception.
Kuechly was taking on a block by pulling guard Brandon Brooks, whose left shoulder collided with Kuechly’s head and neck.
Kuechly, 26, has been wearing an experimental device this season called a Q collar, which was designed to try to prevent brain injuries. Kuechly, the first NFL player to wear the device, has not talked about the Q collar or said much about concussions in general this season – other than to say he would not change the way he plays.
Backup linebacker David Mayo replaced Kuechly at middle linebacker, while many Panthers fans took to social media to express concern for Kuechly and urge him to retire.
The Eagles (5-1) started attacking the middle of the field after Kuechly departed, and several Panthers players said his injury was deflating for the team and its fans.
“I’m sure the air kind of went out of the building,” Bradberry said.
Newton said the Panthers missed Kuechly’s presence.
“We kind of had a little lethargic wave there in the third quarter,” he said.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera didn’t have an update on Kuechly, who missed nine games the past two seasons because of concussions.
His first known brain injury in the NFL came in Week 1 of the 2015 season, when he was hurt against Jacksonville and missed the next three games. Kuechly returned and played a huge part in the Panthers’ march to Super Bowl 50.
He sustained his second concussion last year against the Saints and was in the concussion protocol for three games.
Kuechly was cleared with three regular-season games left. But with the team all but mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, the Panthers held Kuechly out the last three games – a decision Kuechly said he did not agree with.
Given the attention on concussions and the NFL’s stricter protocol, Kuechly is almost certain to miss multiple games.
But the bigger issue has to be Kuechly’s life after football, and those discussions need to start now.
“I love Luke the player. I love Luke as a person, so we’re definitely concerned about his health,” Munnerlyn said. “Hopefully it’s not that bad. Hopefully we can be back with us, but we don’t know.”