Luke Kuechly missed 34 days after suffering a head injury in Week 1 and returned four games later to lead the Panthers in tackles. The Carolina linebacker discusses the risks of playing. Plus, a preview of what to watch in Week 7

By Peter King
October 23, 2015

News item, March 16, 2015: San Francisco inside linebacker Chris Borland, 24, retires from the NFL after one season, concerned about the long-term effects of football and head trauma on his life.

News item, Oct. 13, 2015: An autopsy on the brain of former NFL linebacker Adrian Robinson, who committed suicide in May at age 25, finds evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), according to researchers at Boston University’s CTE Center. CTE, a degenerative brain disease found in those with a history of repetitive head trauma, has been discovered in the brains of 88 deceased former NFL players.

News item, Oct. 18, 2015: Playing for the first time in 34 days after suffering a concussion in the season-opener, ace Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, 24, is on the field for all 61 defensive snaps in Carolina’s victory at Seattle. Kuechly, playing with ferocity from sideline to sideline, leads all in the game with 14 tackles, and is in on nine stops of physical Seattle back Marshawn Lynch.

“It’s hard to argue that linebacker, particularly middle linebacker, is not one of the riskiest positions on the field,” said the CTE Center’s Chris Nowinski.

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Luke Kuechly had 14 tackles against the Seahawks in his Week 6 return.
Stephen Brashear/AP

The 2013 Defensive Player of the Year returned in Carolina’s 27-23 victory over Seattle, and not many people noticed. That’s because the story of the day was either the pair of Cam Newton’s marvelous 80-yard drives in the last eight minutes or the Panthers getting the Seattle monkey off their backs or the Seahawks continuing to be overly generous on defense in the money time of the game. “No matter the situation—and we were down double-digits on the road, in such a hostile environment—our guys fight,” Kuechly said. “I’m so proud of that. We fight.”

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After I re-watched the game on NFL Game Pass on Thursday, one thing was clear: Kuechly was back with a vengeance. He was in on 14 tackles and close to the play on at least 10 more stops. He tussled with Lynch—once, Lynch shoved Kuechly’s helmet back, annoyed at the pest Kuechly was being—and, in general, was the nerve center of the Carolina defense, as he has been most games since the Panthers drafted him in the first round in 2012.

On Sunday night, expect more of the same when the 5-0 Panthers host the Eagles: Kuechly mano a mano with DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews, and ready to pounce if Sam Bradford dares to cross the line of scrimmage on a scramble.

Talking to Kuechly, I wondered if, having watched Borland walk away and heard about another player dying far too early and being found with CTE, he ever thought of the brain-trauma aspect of the game. Clearly, middle linebackers today seem to be in the middle of big hits as much as they were in Dick Butkus’s day. Kuechly is so fast and athletic that he doesn’t have to come off the field on passing downs; the Panthers trust him to be able to cover, if need be, and to play sideline to sideline on every snap.

“It’s a game I love to play so much,” Kuechly said. “I’m going to play it as long as I can. Everybody at this level makes a choice, and you know what you sign up for. I have my mind right. I know what I’m doing. I know the risks. I love the game. I’m going to keep playing it.”

I fully support that right. Peter Landesman, who made the “Concussion” movie, told me in August that playing football should be “an adult choice,” and what he said made sense to me. “You know that concussions can kill you and playing the sport can kill you,” Landesman said. “It’s the same with smoking, drinking and doing drugs. I like to think in some ways that life is an occupational hazard. Something we do in our life is going to kill us; maybe now, maybe 50 years from now.” As long as you know the risk and are willing to take it, and as long as the NFL is up-front about the risks of head trauma (which clearly the league has not always been), a professional player should be free to choose to play.

That doesn’t mean players should be careless about the risks. I asked Kuechly about the concussion he suffered in Week 1 against Jacksonville, and he didn’t think it was severe. “We just had to be careful with it,” he said. “I supported taking it slow and not playing until we were sure I was right. We needed time to heal it. I trusted the care I got. I felt ready to come back.”

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I listened to hear in Kuechly's voice some hesitation, some worry. I heard none of it. He sounded all-in. Let's be clear: Five years ago Kuechly wouldn't have missed 34 days after the hit he took. He probably wouldn't have missed 34 minutes. So the climate change around concussions is a good thing for the NFL. I just hope Kuechly and players like him are cautious, and I hope the NFL continues to allow the unaffiliated neuro-trauma consultants—the two neutral physicians present on the sidelines of every game—to have the power to take and keep woozy players off the field. It’s vital to making sure concussed players are not allowed on the field.

Still, it’s impossible to think current players, even with all the safeguards, are going to be immune to CTE. That’s why it’s vital that, regardless of the flak he takes in other areas, Roger Goodell must have as his primary mission the health and safety of the 1,696 players in the NFL.

I’m not writing your typical preview-of-Sunday column this week. Sometimes I think it’s important to take stock of where the league is going on this very important issue for the future of the game and of the men who play it.

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Colin Kaepernick was sacked six times by the Seahawks defense Thursday night.
Ben Margot/AP

About Last Night … 

Seattle 20, San Francisco 3. So … the 49ers were trying to salvage their season, and the Seahawks were trying to show their first six weeks were not the debacle they seemed. Well, the Niners are what we thought they were—a five-win team, if that. “This team should be ashamed,” Deion Sanders said on CBS, and it was hard to argue with him. San Francisco is far and away the worst team in the NFC West.

The Seahawks are actually good. Start with the defense, which finally had 11 men on the same page; Michael Bennett (3.5 sacks) tormented the shaky Colin Kaepernick. The Niners were as bad on offense as they’ve been since Kaepernick was drafted, and deserve to be in last place in the NFC West.

As for the Seahawks, they’ve discovered the weapon they thought they had when they traded for Percy Harvin two-and-a-half years ago. Tyler Lockett, the rookie from Kansas State, caught a beautiful 43-yard touchdown rainbow from Russell Wilson to make it 17-0 at the half in Santa Clara—and that means Lockett has now scored on a touchdown catch, a punt return for touchdown (57 yards) and kickoff return for touchdown (105 yards) … in the first seven weeks of the season. The Seattle offensive line allowed five sacks, but Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls ran the ball sufficiently to ease the concern about the line for another week. In all, this was a night the Seahawks could point to and say things aren’t as bad they looked the past two weeks. ​

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Player You Need To Know This Week

Stefon Diggs, wide receiver, Minnesota (number 14). After the Vikes left Diggs off the game-day roster for the first three weeks of the season, he has exploded in the past two games for 13 catches and 216 receiving yards. That’s good enough for the third-most receiving yards for any rookie this fall. Diggs, a fifth-round pick from Maryland, has performed so well in the injury absence of starter Charles Johnson (ribs) that there’s no guarantee Johnson will get his job back when he’s healthy.

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Fantasy Player You Need to Know This Week

Christine Michael, running back, Dallas. The 2013 second-round pick by the Seahawks was supposed to be the heir to Marshawn Lynch. But after two meh seasons—54 carries, 16 missed games due to injury and performance—Seattle shipped him to Dallas, where the Cowboys are looking for more production than they’ve gotten out of Joseph Randle. At the Giants on Sunday, look for Michael to get his second chance, and, if he performs well, to take the lion’s share of carries in the Dallas running game.

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Stat of the Week

Dwayne Bowe can’t break into the top four wide receivers with the Browns, which is a bit of a problem.

• Bowe’s catches and yards this season: zero and zero.

• The catches and yards of Travis Benjamin, Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel and Brian Hartline: 73 and 989.

• Bowe’s cap number: $6.25 million.

• The combined cap number of Benjamin, Hawkins, Gabriel and Hartline: $7.21 million.

Something about getting one’s money’s worth there doesn’t quite add up.

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Quote of the Week

“Joe Vitt is on the injury report. He'd probably be listed as doubtful. He tore his Achilles and broke his wrist, so he’s on a little scooter.”

—New Orleans coach Sean Payton on Vitt, his longtime defensive assistant, who was injured chasing two thieves who broke into the cars of Vitt and a neighbor last weekend.

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Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend

1. Ladies and gentlemen, start your computers. For the first time in history, the NFL will stream a game live and for free on computers around the world Sunday. Bills-Jags isn’t exactly Pats-Packers, but it should provide an interesting barometer on Yahoo (which paid millions for the rights to the game) to see who in America will take to the computer to watch a mediocre matchup. But this is significant: With the game starting at 9:30 a.m. on the East Coast, it will be in prime time Sunday night in large swatches of Asia. So let’s see if China pays attention to a free pro football game at an hour people can watch it.

2. The fake-punt hangover. Saints at Colts on Sunday. Will the Indy players or fans be looking at this coaching staff with skepticism after the bizarre fake-punt call and the aftermath of the problems with it?  

3. Adrian Peterson. I don’t know. Twenty carries a game? I guess that’s not really low for a 30-year-old back, but I do know the Vikings had bigger, and more productive, plans for Peterson this season. Major opportunity Sunday at Detroit for the 3-2 Vikes. The Lions are giving up 121 rushing yards a game.

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4. Greg Hardy rushing Eli Manning. Hardy told Dallas reporters that the best way to contain Manning was to “hit him in the mouth. The best thing for any defense is to make the quarterback feel pain.” Hardy is auditioning for WWE.

5. The EJ Manuel show in London. Another week off for Tyrod Taylor’s wounded knee. Another week for Manuel to show the rest of the league he can play. Bills believe strongly in Taylor. Bills still not sure what they have in Manuel. 

6. The fate of Percy Harvin. Vic Carucci of the Buffalo News reports that the wide receiver, who has never been himself since tearing a hip labrum after his 2013 trade from Minnesota to Seattle, is contemplating retirement. He’s one of those players who has trouble playing unless he feels totally healthy, and whether he can ever get back to total health with his sprinter’s body is up for debate. Strange comment by Rex Ryan on Thursday when asked about Harvin, who was excused from the trip to London for what the team called “personal reasons.” Said Ryan: “I don’t know where he is right now.”

7. Brady vs. Revis. I tend to think of this more as Brady vs. Buster Skrine, or Brady vs. Antonio Cromartie, because I can’t see Tom Brady targeting Darrelle Revis more than three or four times Sunday in what should be a surprisingly good game at Foxboro between the 5-0 Patriots and 4-1 Jets. 

8. The Landry Jones Show. The Steelers’ third-string passer completed eight of 12 for 168 yards and two touchdowns in less than a half against a good defense (Arizona) in relief of Mike Vick. Now Jones gets a shot against the Chiefs and their talented edge-rush, in a place where it’s pretty hard to hear, Arrowhead Stadium. 

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9. Philip Rivers continuing to play out of his mind. The Chargers’ quarterback is 355 yards ahead of any other passer in the passing-yardage race (there is such a thing)—Rivers 2,116, Andy Dalton 1,761—and the Raiders are up next. Oakland is 31st in passing yards allowed per game. I sense a day for Rivers at Qualcomm.

10. Valuable byes. Aaron Rodgers hopes his receivers are doing lots of rehabbing this weekend. Peyton Manning hopes his line coalesces and C.J. Anderson remembers how to gain 4.5 yards per rush. Andy Dalton? He’s ticked off the Bengals have a bye at all. He wants to play someone, anyone, and put up 35. Amazing year he’s having, and now he gets to take a breath before the rest of the league comes gunning for him in the last 10 games.

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