CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Now more than ever, Carolina Panthers players are being forced to confront the omnipresent dangers of repeated hits to the head amid a rash of concussions to key players.
Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly was carted off the field with a head injury last Thursday night, a disturbing sight as the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year stared blankly ahead as he wept uncontrollably while heading to the locker room. It was a scary moment some teammates - as well players across the league - likely won't soon forget.
Left tackle Michael Oher still hasn't returned to practice nearly two months after sustaining a concussion. Even reigning league MVP Cam Newton, with his seemingly invincible 6-foot-5, 245-pound muscular physique, missed a game with a concussion and later talked about his concern over long-term effects.
In all, seven Carolina players have found their way into the league's concussion protocol since the start of the preseason.
''When you see it, it always comes across your mind that it could be you one day,'' Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short said.
Short acknowledged the violent nature of some hits is a scary to watch.
''It's like a car crash,'' Short said. ''You never know what the outcome may be. You hope for the best and pray that those guys come back.''
Kuechly did not practice Monday and Panthers coach Ron Rivera offered no update on his status, just reiterating he remains in the NFL's concussion protocol. He said there is no timetable for Kuechly's return.
Still, the Panthers (4-6) must forge on and play six more games without their top defensive player beginning Sunday at Oakland.
One of those trying to move on is safety Colin Jones.
He missed Carolina's 23-20 win Thursday night over New Orleans with a concussion - the second of his career.
''We are trained since we are young to fight through anything... but with a head injury it's just a different situation because 70 percent isn't good enough,'' Jones said. ''Because if there are any side effects at all then you can just really hurt yourself down the road if you come back too quick.''
But Jones said when he does get back on the field it won't change the way he plays.
He's not alone.
Cornerback Leonard Johnson said Monday he was taken the hospital after the Saints game when he had trouble breathing after taking a cleat to his sternum. He said you can't go into a game thinking about not getting hurt.
''I don't think it changes the way you play, it just brings more awareness to the game from a physicality standpoint,'' Johnson said of concussions. ''Once you roll the ball out there you forget all about the injuries and the possibility that (a concussion) can happen. When people focus more on those things they play timid and that's when injuries do happen.''
Kuechly missed 34 days and three games last season with a concussion.
Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said A.J. Klein, another player who missed Thursday night's game with a concussion, would start if Kuechly can't play. Klein returned to practice Monday, but he also remains in the concussion protocol. Third-string linebacker David Mayo would make his first NFL start if Kuechly and Klein can't start.
McDermott said while he has plenty of confidence in Klein's ability, losing Kuechly would be difficult because he's ''the glue'' on defense that connects the defensive front end to the secondary.
''Let's face it, you are never going to be able to replace a player of Luke's caliber,'' McDermott said. ''I wouldn't expect anybody in this locker room to do that. You want those guys to do what they do, do what they did in college and up to this point, and we will be fine.''
Panthers safety Coleman said he believes Kuechly is in good hands with the team's medical staff.
''Ultimately, all I care about is Luke the person, not Luke the player,'' Coleman said. ''I want him to be as healthy as he can be, not just playing for us, but later'' in life.
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