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Panthers’ Kuechley cleared, discusses concussion

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The last time linebacker Luke Kuechly missed a football practice, he was living with his parents. He was a freshman at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, still seven years away from becoming the Carolina Panthers’ first-round pick in the 2012 draft.

So while his teammates practiced nine times and played three games without him the past month, the Pro-Bowl linebacker couldn’t help but feel left out.

“You’re sitting in here and all the guys come in, they’re all sweaty, they had a good practice, they’re all joking around about what happened at practice,” Kuechly said Tuesday after returning to practice. “It’s like you’re in time out and you can’t go out and play with your friends. It’s like detention and they’re at recess and you can’t hang out with them.”

Kuechly, who was in the NFL’s concussion protocol since Week 1, was cleared after meeting an independent neurologist on Monday.

“It’s like he picked up right where he left off, communicating, running around all over the place, doing things that are typical of Luke,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “It was a long process, but the process was what it needed to be.”

If that process seemed longer than usual, it’s because Kuechly’s situation proved how the NFL has changed. Or at least, is changing.

It’s easy to be cynical about a league that took so long just to acknowledge players’ brains may be at risk in a sport that requires the head to take and give hits at high velocity. But over the past few weeks, Rivera admitted he would have likely played Kuechly in the ‘old days,’ and there’s no question players need to be protected from themselves.

“I would have played as much as I could,” Kuechly said. “But it’s one of those things, what’s the smart thing to do, what’s the right thing to do, versus what you want to do. Obviously, I want to play every game, but you understand that stuff has to be taken care of or else you may get another one.

“It’s weird, you can’t tape it up, you can’t suck it up. It’s one of those things that you’ve just got to wait for it to go away. That was probably the most difficult part, knowing that you can’t really tough it out.”

–Through the first four games of his rookie year, Carolina receiver Kelvin Benjamin had three touchdown catches. During the Panthers’ 4-0 start to this season, Benjamin has had a much different end zone.

“‘Oh, you get to go to the pool this day,’ for me, that was like scoring a touchdown,” Benjamin said Tuesday, describing his rehab from an ACL tear. “‘Oh we get on the bike this day.’ All right, I can get on the bike; I couldn’t do that a week ago.”

It wasn’t supposed to be like this, of course. After he destroyed Panthers’ rookie records with 73 catches, 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns, Benjamin was destroying defensive backs at training camp. Then, about an hour into the first joint practice with the Dolphins, he made an ill-fated cut in a one-on-one drill.

“In this league, you sign up for it. You know there’s a chance that you’re going to go out there and get hurt,” Benjamin said. “It’s just it was right before the season. It happens. You can’t let it hold you down. You can’t let that define you.”

So far, the Panthers haven’t let the vision of Benjamin clutching his knee that morning in Spartanburg be their defining moment of 2015. But as expected, the passing game sans a No. 1 wideout isn’t striking much fear into opposing defenses. Only the Rams, 49ers and Vikings have thrown for fewer yards per game and stacked boxes have stifled Jonathan Stewart’s season. So it’s impossible not to think “what if?”

“I hate to say it, but I did this morning,” head coach Ron Rivera admitted. “I walked in and there he was at his locker. I just kept thinking, ‘Golly.'”

What’s made Benjamin’s loss more painful is the slow start of Devin Funchess. It wasn’t realistic to assume he’d match Benjamin’s incredible rookie year, but it’s not wrong to think the second-round pick should have more than three catches for 38 yards through four games. The Panthers have been working on getting Funchess to make better use of his 6-foot-4 frame. They’re still waiting.

“I think (Benjamin’s absence) has been a bit of a hindrance to Devin’s development,” Rivera said. “When you have a guy that you’re very similar in stature, and you watch him do the things we’re trying to get Devin to do, he doesn’t have an example. Devin could sit there and watch Kelvin do it, and say, ‘Man, OK, that’s how I should do it.'”

–Linebacker A.J. Klein made a surprise appearance as a limited participant on Wednesday’s injury report with a concussion.

He suffered the previously unreported concussion against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 4. Klein is currently in the NFL’s concussion protocol and scheduled to meet with an independent neurologist.

Notes: Defensive end Jared Allen (pinched nerve), who missed just two games because of injury during his 12-year career, did not practice Wednesday. Wes Horton will start across from Kony Ealy if Allen can’t play Sunday. … Returning to practice Wednesday were wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery (high-ankle sprain) and offensive lineman Amini Silatolu. … Tackle Daryl Williams (knee sprain) is still at least a week away from returning.


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