Perhaps because they’ve done this before, most of the Panthers talked about next-man-up after middle linebacker Luke Kuechly left Thursday’s loss to the Eagles with a concussion.
But quarterback Cam Newton may have summed up the spot they’re in now, and the uncertain future because of their defensive leader’s track record.
“We need Luke,” Newton said. “His presence was missed.”
The concussion was Kuechly’s third in three seasons, and his second straight on national television on Thursday Night Football. He didn’t leave in tears this time, but jogged off the field under his own power after being hit by Eagles guard Brandon Brooks.
But the Eagles immediately went to work on the middle of the field in his absence, attacking backup David Mayo, and hitting tight end Zach Ertz for a pair of touchdowns in spots where Kuechly would have ordinarily been.
Kuechly missed the last six weeks of last season following a concussion, though he was cleared by the independent neurologist but was held back by coach Ron Rivera during a lost season. He also missed three games in 2015, which gives the Panthers pause.
Kuechly has refused to make it an issue, but the concern in the Panthers locker room was obvious, with the potential loss of the former defensive player of the year overshadowing the simple emotion of a loss that dropped them to 4-2.
“We don’t talk about that kind of thing,” Mayo said. “It’s unfortunate, but it happens.”
And now that it has happened again to Kuechly, the uncertainly about his future and theirs will linger.