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No timetable on Luke Kuechly return, but players aren't focused on that

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short hadn’t seen a player cry on the field before Thursday for something other than a tough loss or an emotion sparked by the national anthem.

The 2015 Pro Bowl selection laughed when asked if he ever cried on the field, evoking the scene of Tom Hanks in the 1992 movie "A League of Their Own" when he said "there’s no crying in baseball."

So seeing middle linebacker Luke Kuechly in tears in the back of the cart after suffering a concussion with about three minutes left in the 23-20 victory over New Orleans left an impression.

Not just on Short, but the entire Carolina team.

On anybody that witnessed the scene.

“When it happened and everybody saw it on the Jumbotron, the stadium got quiet," Short said on Monday as the Panthers returned to practice following an off weekend. “You could hear grass growing.

“We were just quiet, too. We didn’t know what was going on. Then you see the cart coming and that made it more serious. It was just one of those moments."

The Panthers (4-6) survived that moment for their third win in four games. Now they’re focused on preparing for a critical two-week road trip against Oakland and Seattle that likely will decide whether they have a shot at the playoffs.

They’ll stay in California after Sunday’s game against the Raiders and prepare for Seattle at San Jose State, where they practiced for Super Bowl 50.

Whether Kuechly will make the trip nobody could say. Kuechly was not at practice on Monday, and coach Ron Rivera said there is no timetable for the return of the three-time Pro Bowl selection.

Kuechly missed three games with a concussion last season, and second concussions sometimes take longer to get over.

But the Panthers have moved on from what Short and others called a scary moment. As much as they’d like to have Kuechly back on the field, they’re more concerned about his long-term health.

“Ultimately, that’s what I care about ... Luke the person, not Luke the player," safety Kurt Coleman said. “I want him to be as healthy as he can, not just playing for us but later in his career."

The Panthers are in their next-man-up mentality. As important as Kuechly has been to the success of the defense, they are confident in whoever replaces him.

A.J. Klein was that player a year ago, but Klein also is in the concussion protocol. Klein said he practiced full on Monday, which puts him on track for a possible return.

If he’s not cleared, second-year player David Mayo will get the call.

“Next man up. Next man up," fullback Mike Tolbert said. “Everybody who’s on this team, who’s on this roster, is here for a reason. We expect you to produce at the end of the day."

Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott praised Klein for the way he replaced Kuechly a year ago.

“To step in that role he stepped into last year, to command the defense and control really what we’re trying to get done on defense, I thought he did a nice job and made plays at the same time," he said.

“It’s one thing to get people lined up. It’s another to make plays. He did both of those extremely well."

McDermott also was touched the by emotion his players and others experienced when Kuechly was carted off.

“It’s hard," he said. “Anytime anybody goes down it’s hard. You never want to see it, whether it’s our team, another team, another coach. That’s the human element of this game."

Short felt it in a way he’d never experienced before seeing Kuechly in tears.

“It’s serious, man," he said. “You could see how much he loves this game and this team. I can’t really say what he was crying for. Was it the concussion or if he was still crying because he still wanted to be out there? I just hope he gets better."