CHARLOTTE - So two exhibitions into the unknown, we still don’t know what to make of the Carolina Panthers.
And only three weeks away from the regular-season opener against the Rams, the most obvious questions are about the Panthers two most important players Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly.
After an apparent 11th-hour decision to leave them both on the bench tonight against the Buffalo Bills, there’s no way of knowing how close they are to being 100 percent and game-ready.
Newton is coming off shoulder surgery and has yet to be completely turned loose from a strictly monitored preseason regimen.
He’s shown brief moments of promise in Spartanburg, but when the Panthers broke camp this week we still didn’t know what the Panthers were thinking.
Now we sort of do.
He’s not ready. Or at least the Panthers aren’t ready to expose him to live action.
Kuechley is in a similar but more troubling position. The linebacker missed time during training camp after being caught in a pile of players. He returned trying assure people his absence had nothing to do with concussions.
“I know what you guys want to know,” he said.
He said he was in timeout. Apparently, he still is.
Panthers coach Ron Rivers contends the team is just being “cautious” with Kuechly, but had hinted earlier in the week that both he and Newton would likely play against the Bills. It’s almost unheard of for a starting NFL quarterback to sit both of the first two exhibitions.
Welcome to the new norm.
Since 2014, the two have played two full seasons apiece, missing 18 games between them and sending shockwaves through a franchise that was in a recent Super Bowl and built for what looked to be a long run of success.
But three weeks away from another season, it’s apparent that the Panthers are still in a form of recovery and rehab with little confidence in where their franchise stars are physically.
Around them, the Panthers appear to be in decent form. There are emerging offensive weapons at wide receiver, a once-in-a-generation player in Christian McCaffrey and ageless tight end Greg Olsen.
Once again, however, there are concerns along the offensive line.
The defensive front should be impressive and the secondary should be solid with young corners and veteran safeties. The only question would be Kuechly, who is the best defensive player in the NFL when healthy.
His health as of now isn’t in question. But having been kept out of two exhibitions and completely kept out of hard contact in practice suggests how cautious Carolina really is.
Kuechly himself said last week that he needed to play and practice at full speed, both in a preseason game and in full-contact drills during the week.
“Just so you don’t forget how to play football,” he said.
And until a couple hours before tonight’s game against Buffalo, it appeared that was going to happen, if only for a few snaps and a series or two tops.
Somewhere between two days ago and tonight, the Panthers had second thoughts for both Newton and Kuechly.
Read what you will into the decision, but it means both will likely need to play next week in a road exhibition against the Patriots. Then who knows? Starters almost never play the fourth exhibition.
The new norm in Charlotte is going against NFL norms.
A cynical person might suggest that the late decision to keep the stars out was a ploy to get people to come watch, thinking they’d see two of the biggest names in the NFL. Instead, they paid full price to watch another FanFest.
Among those watching were the two stars along with McCaffrey and Olsen. The fans should’ve demanded a refund.
The season opener is nearing, and Carolina isn’t ready.
And we have no idea how this will all turn out.
We really have no idea what’s going on.