Sometimes, athletes are just born at the right time. Their skill set fits the style of play of the times, maybe a torrid-shooting NBA point guard in today’s game or a powerful blocking tight end from the NFL of the 1980s.
Luke Kuechly is one of those players who came along at the perfect time.
The Carolina Panthers middle linebacker is the exact fit for today’s game, a spread-it-out-throw-it-around NFL that puts a premium on speed and coverage from the back seven. Linebackers don’t just line up, battle the middle of the line, and bang heads with the backs all day like it used to be.
Middle linebackers need to run now more than ever. They need to be able to cover, matching up in man when needed. They need to move fast, yet still have the ability to hold up in the run game when asked to do so with a thud.
That takes speed, smarts and toughness.
For Kuechly that fit is even more pronounced considering the division he plays in right now, the NFC South. The Panthers’ three opponents in the division feature good quarterbacks, with the Saints’ Drew Brees actually being great and the Falcons’ Matt Ryan coming off an MVP season. Jameis Winston is a rising player at the position.
Getting spread out happens a lot, which means Kuechly has to run and cover a lot more than even some other division’s linebackers are asked to do.
“I like being able to run around,” Kuechly said during a break from workouts with the Tennessee Titans here last week. “That’s my game. With all these teams spreading it out and throwing the ball, that’s more my style of play.”
So does he prefer a pick or a big hit in the run game?
“I’ll take the pick, that’s a game changer,” Kuechly said. “Get a guy for a 2-yard loss, that affects that series. Get a pick, and it’s a game changer.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera played linebacker for the Chicago Bears back in the 1980s and early 1990s. It was a different game back then, more physical than cerebral. Teams didn’t do a lot of pre-snap movement and rarely spread out the defense. That meant it was controlled violence in a phone booth for the most part — hats on hats, big hit after big hit in the run game.
So Rivera knows a little bit about Kuechly coming along at the right time.
“Yes, he’s perfect for today’s game,” Rivera said. “But he would be a plug-and-play in any system. He’s that good. But the way offenses play now, it certainly fits his game.”
It’s too bad the Panthers and the rest of the NFL didn’t get to see it as much as they should have last season because Kuechly suffered the second concussion of his career in Week 11. The hit kept him on the sidelines for the rest of the season.
The image of his concussion is one from the 2016 NFL season that we won’t soon forget: A tough, nasty, violent linebacker, one at the top of his game, reduced to tears as he was taken from the field on a cart — sobbing, really — his immediate football future in doubt thanks to a hit to the side of the head.
Kuechly was a picture of vulnerability in the macho NFL, and it was a moment that tugged at your heart strings, no matter how jaded you are. This was a 230-pound tough guy clearly scared and fearful of what had just happened, a man dazed, confused and uncertain.
Some nine months later, Kuechly is back on the field, playing with his normal intensity and readying for the 2017 season.
Was he scared that night? Of course he was.
Will it change the way he plays?
“No,” he said. “I’ve been playing this way for so long. Maybe in practice I might think about it, try to keep a guy off me, but once it’s on for real, it’s on. You just have to play.”
“He hasn’t changed at all,” Rivera said.
As Kuechly talked, he didn’t seem too concerned going forward. The hit last November, in a 23-20 victory over the New Orleans Saints, is way in his rear-view mirror.
Even at a time when concussion issues are more in the news, with reports and studies of long-term problems coming from those head hits and concussions at the forefront of the news these days, Kuechly insists there isn’t one bit of hesitation on his part to play the game again.
“I just play football,” he said. “You understand what you are getting into. They’re always trying to improve it, make it better and safer and more efficient. It is what it is. And we have a great team here to take care of us.”
Even though Kuechly was cleared late in the year, the team opted to sit him out. He said last week that he was ready to get back on the field.
“I wanted to play,” he said. “It was their decision after I was cleared. I feel like I am pretty well informed on what’s going on (with the concussion issues). I appreciate the way the team handles situations as best they can. It doesn’t matter who you are. They sat Cam (Newton) out. They don’t mess with that. They make sure every player is back healthy before he plays again. Knowing the team is in your corner is comforting. They want you to be good as a player, a person and an individual before you get back out there.”
Kudos should go to the Panthers for that. At a time when head trauma is a major issue, they protected one of their own. It doesn’t always happen that way.
“I wanted to dig in deeper and try and understand what it’s all about,” Rivera said “You see those things different now. I have a better feel and understanding. I was more cautious than I need to be, but I had to be. When you have a second one, you worry about all kinds of things. You find out when a guy is cleared to play, the likelihood of him having a concussion is still there. The more rest, the better. I listened to the doctors. I didn’t want to rush it.”
That was the hard part: Keeping Kuechly on the sideline even though medically he was allowed to play. When I talked to him, you could see that didn’t sit well with the linebacker.
“I understand the decision, but I just wanted to play,” he said.
His injury was just one of the many bad things that happened as the Panthers suffered through a nasty Super Bowl hangover in 2016. After going 15-1 during the 2015 regular season, they lost to the Broncos in Super Bowl 50 in February of 2016.
Then it came apart. They went 6-10 last season as injuries mounted and the losses wore on the team.
“It wasn’t like we were blown out,” Kuechly said. “We lost six games by less than five points. We were right there.”
With Kuechly back healthy again, Newton ready to throw in a game soon after offseason shoulder surgery, as well as some new additions on offense, the Panthers could be back pushing for a playoff spot again this season.
But that would mean Kuechly’s on the field for the entire season, his run-and-chase-cover ways standing out in a division where it’s a must.
This is his era — and he’s making the most of it with his versatile talents.
“Running around is what I do,” he said. “I am glad the game is played the way it is now. It fits what I do.”