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Panthers' Luke Kuechly should consider making latest concussion scare his last

Sporting News logo Sporting News 10/13/2017 Vinnie Iyer

(Video Provided by Sports Illustrated)

CHARLOTTE, N..C. — The Panthers had the worst kind of "Thursday Night Football" deja vu in their frustrating 28-23 loss to Eagles to open Week 6 — the sight of Luke Kuechly leaving a game with a concussion.

Unlike in their midweek home matchup with the Saints in Week 11 last season, a Pyrrrhic 23-20 victory in which Kuechly ended up being lost for the final six games with a head injury that had him being carted off from the field in tears, they have a lot of meaningful games left in 2017.

Carolina is still 4-2 after falling to Philadelphia, which is now 5-1. It's still a stong playoff contender, not looking like anything close to the Super Bowl-hungover bunch that went 6-10 and finished last in the NFC South last season.

GAME CENTER: Complete stats from Eagles-Panthers

Luke Kuechly © (Getty Images) Luke Kuechly

Forget how the Eagles' offense got the tying touchdown and took the lead not long after Kuechly was hurt in the red zone right before halftime.

Forget how their power running game with LeGarrette Blount suddenly sprung to life, and how Carson Wentz's confidence in the passing game picked up.

Forget how, on a night where Cam Newton and the Panthers' offense struggled for stretches, a Kuechly-less defense may have cost them a shot at winning.

Forget how they might function without him going foward and whether David Mayo can be a halfway adequate replacement at middle linebacker.

This is about how a beloved team leader is staring at an uncertain football future instead of peering into an opponent's backfield. Having already missed nine games over the past two seasons, a third concussion in as many years puts Kuechly's career in serious jeopardy.

Panthers fans, media and players in Bank of America Stadium all knew that the news of Kuechly being evaluated for a concussion and then quickly being put into the protocol was more likely to have more long-term reprecussions than be another temporary setback.

MORE: SN's live blog of Eagles-Panthers

Kuechly was adamant that he didn't want to change the way he plays the game he loves so much. He was back this season going hard in pursuit on every play, showing the passion that has made him the sentimental favorite in Carolina over Newton's dabbing Superman.

Before taking on the Eagles, much was made about the Charlotte Observer story detailing how Kuechly had turned to an apparatus called a "woodpecker collar" that was designed to help prevent concussions.

Unfortunately, that was no match for Kuechly giving his typical relentless effort in an intense short-week game against an extremely tough and equally physical opponent. Kuechly showed every bit of his energy in dominating the game early with four tackles. He was headed to a monster performance.

It doesn't seem fair for this to happen to a player who plays football the right way. But then, ask J.J. Watt about fairness: His superhero humanitarian efforts couldn't make him any more invincible on the field this season.

Watt is at a crossroads himself. A bad back injury suffered last year had him questioning his football mortality. Now he's dealing with a major leg injury, He's about to miss 24 games in his prime years, when he was supposed to further build his case as one of the NFL's greatest all-time defenders.

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Ever since Kuechly was drafted early in the first round a year after Watt in 2012, the two have been vying for NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors, with Kuechly winning the one that Watt didn't from 2012-15.

Now there's another connection between Kuechly and Watt — Watt's former Wisconsin temmate Chris Borland. As a 49ers rookie in 2014, Borland looked like he would succeed Patrick Willis in San Francisco as a premier inside linebacker and was often mentioned in the same breath as Kuechly.

Borland then famously walked away from the game after only one NFL season, before the accolades, before the millions. Kuechly, like Watt, has been well-compensated, and well-honored. Given how repeated concussions have felled many great players in a most brutal sport, Kuechly has given — and received — enough to ease the difficulty of walking away.

The on-field fate of the Panthers has to be put aside now. As much as that hurts for Kuechly, the difficult decision may end up being the only decision.


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