CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Frank Reich is like every other NFL coach when it comes to injuries and trying not to waver from the “next man up” mantra.
But Shaq Thompson is not just any man.
The 29-year-old linebacker is the Carolina Panthers’ longest-tenured position player, having arrived as a first-round pick in 2015 just in time for Cam Newton’s MVP season and the team’s magical run to Super Bowl 50.
Thompson is a team captain who took a pay cut in the offseason to stay with the Panthers and one of their emotional leaders. There’s a reason why nearly every one of his teammates was on the field Monday night before Thompson was carted to the locker room with what proved to be a broken leg.
“He’s just one of those players that you would never think anything could happen to him. He’s like Ironman out there. To see that was definitely heartbreaking,” cornerback Donte Jackson said. “You see something happen to Shaq and you just automatically think that he’s going to pop right back up and be ready to go. When you see the cart, (everyone) just comes to the realization that maybe it is bad. It sucks and it takes the air out of the place.”
Panthers playing bad, boring brand of offense, but Frank Reich says they’re close
Thompson underwent surgery on a fractured fibula in his right leg Tuesday morning. The Panthers placed him on injured reserve with the expectation his season is over.
Panthers coach Frank Reich declined to divulge the plan for replacing Thompson. Whatever they decide, it will be almost impossible to fill the void in the locker room.
“This is a warrior. This is a guy who knows how to practice, he knows how to play. He’s a team-first player,” Reich said. “I was texting him (Monday) night and he’s already talking about trying to figure ways he’s gonna get back. This is before he has all the news. But trying to figure out a way he’s gonna help the team.”
The Panthers have played well defensively through two games. They rank in the top 10 in total defense (281.0 yards allowed per game) and sacks per game (4.0). But it’s fair to wonder how many more hits they can take injury-wise.
Thompson, who is signed through next season, joined cornerback Jaycee Horn as the second starter in as many weeks to go on IR. Horn is out indefinitely after undergoing a hamstring procedure.
“Both of those guys are star players. They make plays,” Pro Bowl edge rusher Brian Burns said. “Shaq really is the motor to the defense in a way where he controls everything. So his presence is definitely going to be felt now that he’s out. But it’s a business. This is the game we play and stuff happens, so gotta keep going.”
Kamu Grugier-Hill replaced Thompson in the 20-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints, and finished with six tackles and a sack. Reich was in Philadelphia (2016-17) with Grugier-Hill, who was signed in the offseason to play special teams and provide linebacker depth. Reich said he respected the way Grugier-Hill played against the Saints but the Panthers may not view him as an every-down player.
Veteran linebacker Deion Jones is on the practice squad. But the Panthers weren’t high on Jones during training camp, releasing him in August a month after signing him. Reich did not rule out adding a free agent but the Panthers face a quick turnaround (and a cross-country flight to Seattle) following the Monday night game.
Limiting the hits on Young
If it wasn’t already apparent the Panthers don’t want to expose rookie quarterback Bryce Young to unnecessary hits, it’s now crystal clear after Reich unveiled his short-yardage specialist Monday night — backup quarterback Andy Dalton.
The 13-year veteran replaced the 5-10, 204-pound Young on a pair of short-yardage plays in the second half, though Dalton didn’t get a carry. His first play — a fourth-and-1 in Saints’ territory — was whistled dead when right guard Cade Mays flinched before the snap. The Panthers opted for a 54-yard field goal from Eddy Pineiro following the penalty.
Dalton came in again for third-and-1 two series later and shoveled a pitch to Miles Sanders, who picked up the first down with a 5-yard run.
This is not the first time Reich has subbed for his quarterback in tough-yardage situations. When Reich was the Indianapolis Colts’ coach in 2020, he would replace 39-year-old Philip Rivers with Jacoby Brissett when the Colts were in short-yardage or goal-line situations.
Brissett gained only 19 yards on 17 carries that season but nine of them resulted in first downs and three went for touchdowns.
“That’s not unprecedented by any stretch of the imagination for me,” Reich said. “There’s a lot of different things we can do. I just feel very comfortable (with) Andy. Some of those things you just want to limit the exposure of Bryce. And Bryce can do any of it but you’ve got an experienced veteran.”
Dalton was a willing runner at TCU, finishing with 1,611 career rushing yards and 22 touchdowns, the most by a quarterback in school history. The 35-year-old Dalton has run for 1,465 yards and 22 TDs in the NFL.
“There’s no golden rule that says he can’t come in and play a couple plays in the game,” Reich said. “Look what the Saints did. I know Taysom Hill’s a different story but why not do that to a lesser extent if it can be utilized in a positive way?”
Looking for a spark
Reich called plays for parts of five seasons in Indianapolis before coming to Carolina, where owner David Tepper wanted to hire the franchise’s first offensive-minded coach. No matter how bad the Panthers’ offense has looked over the first two weeks, Reich isn’t going to give up the play calling after two games — or at any point this season unless Tepper demands it.
But Reich does have to figure out a way to get some explosive plays. The Panthers and Las Vegas Raiders are the only teams without a completion of 25 yards or longer through two games.
Part of the issue is their receivers aren’t creating much separation. Rookie Jonathan Mingo has the league’s fifth-lowest average separation yards at 1.8, while Terrace Marshall isn’t far behind with a 2.3-yard average.
Tight end Hayden Hurst (3.2 yards) and Adam Thielen (2.9) have the best separation marks among the Panthers’ receivers who qualify. They also are the team’s two receiving leaders.
Hurst led the Panthers with seven targets and five catches in Week 1 at Atlanta but was targeted only three times against the Saints — all of which came in the fourth quarter.
“Tight ends have played a significant role on our offense. We’re gonna spread the ball around,” Reich said. “We get to know the players better and better, get the feel for Bryce and what he likes and how he likes to utilize those guys.”
To that point, Reich said coaches need to get the ball to receiver/running back Laviska Shenault, who ran for seven yards up the middle on his only touch against the Saints.
“We as coaches have to do a better job of finding a way to get him a few more touches,” Reich said. “You saw the one run yesterday. He made a great individual effort on the run. There was stuff up for him, I can assure you that.”
On his way out of the locker room late Monday night, Shenault was asked whether the Panthers needed to take more shots downfield.
“I’m not in control of calling plays and stuff,” he said. “I’m just doing what’s being asked of me.”
So far, it hasn’t been much.
(Top photo of Shaq Thompson: Grant Halverson / Getty Images)
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