One thing has been proven over the past 2 weeks in the NFL: The Carolina Panthers look set to be the breakout team in the NFC. With a revitalized defense that has topped the rankings in the league, the Panthers just earned two marquee victories over the San Francisco 49ers and the New England Patriots. Now on a 6-game win streak, the Panthers are becoming that team that no one wants to face. So what has revolutionized this team and their defense? Linebacker Luke Kuechly!
Hailing from Boston College, Kuechly took the league by storm last year, amassing 164 tackles and earning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Cementing his position as middle linebacker and leader of the Panthers’ defense, the league could be dominated by this inspiring force for many years. In the last decade, most of the top NFL defenses have been cemented by a star linebacker. Think about the Baltimore Ravens with Ray Lewis, or the Chicago Bears featuring Brian Urlacher.
The linebacker is the prototypical football player position. He is the perfect blend of brute strength and speed, usually encompassing a bulky yet muscular disposition. A true linebacker roams all over the field tackling everyone he can, but most importantly making impact plays that change a game. Kuechly is currently the prime example of a young star linebacker ready to take his team to the top. But there is a funny trend emerging with recent superstar linebackers: They tend to burn bright but fade rather quickly.
Let’s look at some recent linebacker stars. Brian Cushing was drafted 15th overall in 2009, had 4 interceptions, 4 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles in his first season. He made 133 tackles and earned the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. The Texans quickly became one of the league’s best defenses. However, fast forward several years and things have changed. He only played 5 games last year, and this year has just 1.5 sacks and 1 interception. The Texans are one of the worst teams in the league. Cushing isn’t alone in such a mid-career decline in form by linebackers.
Shawne Merriman came with much aplomb to the San Diego Chargers in 2005, earned 10 sacks as a rookie, trademarked his wonderful “light’s out” dance, and was awarded the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. His dominance would last just two more years, culminating in a trip to the AFC Championship game for this tough defense. But injury would derail his hopes in 2008. He was eventually cut from the team in 2010. Since then the Chargers have been painfully average. Merriman joined the Buffalo Bills, never returned to form, and recently retired.
Let’s look at Patrick Willis of the San Francisco 49ers. His first year in 2007 turned out 174 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, and 4 sacks, leading to a Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. However, while the 49ers have returned to form in the NFL in the last 3 years, Willis’ stats have steadily declined. He has just 1 sack this year, and most of the team’s defensive prowess has come from other playmakers.
How about Clay Matthews of the Green Bay Packers? He helped the team to a Super Bowl victory in 2010, earning 13.5 sacks that year! While his stats and impact plays have still been prominent, his play has certainly dropped and he has suffered from injuries. More importantly, the Packers’ defense has regressed and he hasn’t recorded an interception since 2011.
Sure, the above picture is quite pessimistic on the longevity of these players. But there have been a couple of guys who have sustained great statistics and leadership throughout a full career: Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis.
Urlacher immediately gave legitimacy to the Chicago Bears’ defense in 2000, and also won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. He had earned 8 sacks, 2 interceptions, and recorded 123 tackles. Fortunately, his career culminated in his 8th season, where he managed 5 interceptions and 5 sacks. However, even he faced a barren patch in 2003 with 0 turnovers. He seemed to be able to overcome his lulls and put together a Hall of Fame caliber career.
Another sure bet for the NFL Hall of Fame is Ray Lewis. Although Lewis was never a sack-master, he was a game changer with interceptions and piled up over a 100 tackles in 13 of his 17 seasons. The only years in which he didn’t manage such high tackles was due to games missed. Lewis could never be worn down and seemed to play with a passion and fire that is far and away the highest ever seen in the league. He was awarded with 2 Super Bowls and is the true dream for a defensive coordinator.
So what is Luke Kuechly? Will he continue to put up these stats and lead the Panthers to eternal glory? Or is he a sure bet to fade in the coming years? To me it seems that the Defensive Rookie of the Year award may be something of a curse… Also, I also think that many linebackers suffer the fate similar to running backs. They generally have a shortened career through the constant battering of violent tackles and running around all game. Another factor that probably limits mid-career linebackers is the ability of opponents to review game film. Teams eventually discover a playmaker’s weaknesses and find ways to negate them in a gameplan. Pulled guards are assigned to flatten such players and running plays often head away from the playmaker. Kuechly currently benefits from his surprise factor and that he has just become relevant to the league.
So where will he go once his body suffers from continued bruises and offensive coordinators discover his weaknesses? Does he have the heart of a Ray Lewis? Only time will tell. However, I’d suggest that Panthers fans enjoy this moment and hope for glory in the next year or two, because history suggests that such high-caliber play from a linebacker goes away as quickly as it arrives!
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