The image of Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly (59) on television screens around the country on Thursday night gave head injuries in the NFL a face. (Photo: Jeff Siner, The Charlotte Observer)

From the opening game of the NFL season to the “Thursday Night Football” matchup against New Orleans, the Carolina Panthers have become the pained face of the NFL’s concussion problem.

The Panthers have placed six players in the league’s concussion protocol since the start of the regular season. That’s more than any other team, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

The list includes the two cornerstones of the franchise – quarterback Cam Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, whose post-concussion meltdown played out Thursday night in high definition in front of more than 13 million television viewers.

Kuechly’s rugged good looks have made him a popular pitch man. In ads for CPI Security during the NBC broadcast, Kuechly was the smiling, muscular, boy-next-door protector of customers’ homes.

But the lasting image of Kuechly from Thursday – and probably the whole season – is of him sobbing and hyperventilating as he was carted out of Bank of America Stadium.

It was a bad look for a league that – despite belatedly throwing millions of dollars into concussion and CTE research – still has owners like Jerry Jones with their heads in the sand.

Jones, the Cowboys owner, remains unconvinced that a strong link exists between football and degenerative brain disease. Jones, who played football at Arkansas, said in a Sports Illustrated Q&A he underwent a CAT scan under an assumed name and was told he had the brain of a 40-year-old.

Kuechly is 25 and now has had two concussions in the past two seasons.

His first one, last season at Jacksonville, happened on an awkward play when Kuechly uncharacteristically ducked his head into the ballcarrier. He sat out a month while in the protocol.

But Kuechly had textbook form Thursday on his tackle of Saints running back Tim Hightower. Kuechly shed a block from tight end Coby Fleener and engaged Hightower with his head up – just like USA Football, the NFL’s youth football arm, teaches kids in its Heads Up Football initiative.

But Hightower lowered his helmet into Kuechly, catching him on the facemask, chin and chest. The collision knocked Kuechly backward, causing Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis’ helmet to clip the back of Kuechly’s.

Erin Manning, a New York-based sports neurologist, said the double impact might have caused Kuechly’s brain injury.

“As soon as I saw how he got hit, I certainly wasn’t surprised that there was concern about a concussion,” Manning said. “He looks like he got hit in the head twice.”

What viewers saw next was what brain trauma can look like in the short-term – tears from a Pro Bowl player who looked completely scared and confused.

“It’s always hard to watch somebody who’s so emotional and so upset about something. There’s an emotional reaction back when someone’s so distraught like that,” said Manning, the concussion expert from New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery.

As for Kuechly’s reaction, Manning said: “It’s not just the headaches and the nausea and the dizziness that people think of. It can really affect your emotions.”

Maybe more NFL fans (and owners) need to witness these moments to realize those are actual people under the pads and helmet – not mechanical gladiators like the NFL on FOX droid.

A season of pain

Panthers fans have been forced to become more sensitive to concussions this season.

When Newton was banged around in Denver in the Super Bowl 50 rematch in Week 1, the postgame focus was on the Broncos’ unflagged helmet-to-helmet hits on Newton and whether the Panthers followed protocol. Newton’s health? That was secondary.

When Newton suffered his first known concussion a few weeks later in Atlanta, critics ripped him for slowing down near the goal line to showboat.

Panthers left tackle Michael Oher has spent seven weeks in the concussion protocol. With each passing week, my Twitter mentions would fill up with calls to put Oher on injured reserve so the team could free a roster spot.

And those were the nicer posts. Others questioned Oher’s toughness with some ugly descriptions.

But after a little more about Oher’s symptoms and struggles came out last week, I think I recognized some actual sympathy on Twitter.

That was certainly the case Thursday as fans reacted to Kuechly’s surreal breakdown.

It was a sobering sight for everyone – fans, media members, coaches and players.

Fearing the worst

Saints safety and former Panther Roman Harper said it was scary to see Kuechly in such a state, and New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees feared the worst.

“I gave him his space as they were taking him off the field. I tried to let him know that I’d be praying for him,” Brees said. “I’m not sure exactly what it was, but obviously for that guy to go down like that I think you think the worst.

“He is maybe – certainly – one of the best football players I’ve ever seen (or) played against and I hope he’s OK.”

NFL players are well compensated to play a dangerous game. They know the risks and choose to take their chances, although some – including former Carolina linebacker Dan Morgan – choose to walk away while they still have their faculties.

It’s impossible to guess what Kuechly’s thinking now. When he was cleared from the protocol last season, he didn’t get too reflective with reporters.

The Panthers (4-6) have six games remaining, including a two-week stint on the West Coast against Oakland and Seattle.

Instead of being consumed with when Kuechly will be back in the lineup, let’s take a cue from Brees and focus on when Kuechly will feel like himself again.

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