The Carolina Panthers rode a combination of an explosive offense and a stout defense to the NFL's best record in 2015 and a berth opposite the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50. The heart of that sixth-ranked defense is the linebacker duo of 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly and veteran Pro Bowler Thomas Davis.
Kuechly will man his usual spot at middle linebacker on Super Bowl Sunday, but after Davis broke his arm in last week's NFC title game rout of the Arizona Cardinals, his availability for the big game is no sure thing.
And that means that against one of the most cerebral quarterbacks in NFL history, in the biggest game of their lives, young linebackers Shaq Thompson and A.J. Klein are going to have to grow up in a hurry.
Granted, to hear Davis talk, the youngsters will be watching him do what he's done all season long: terrify opponents.
As Darin Gantt of Pro Football Talk reported, Davis was already making Super Bowl plans in the locker room after the Panthers downed the Cardinals.
"I've got two weeks to heal up," Davis said. "Come on, you know me. I ain't missing the Super Bowl, you know that."
Those words were spoken before the 32-year-old had surgery to insert a plate in his arm.
But Davis' tune hadn't changed afterward, either, according to ESPN.com's David Newton:
I'm excited about where I am right now. It hasn't changed. I'm still looking forward to playing in the Super Bowl.
Man, even bigger than me having this opportunity, I want to go out and play for my team because I know I can help the team. That's what it's all about.
As ESPN.com's Stephania Bell reported, there is a precedent for a Carolina player making a speedy return from a similar injury:
While the bone itself will require at least six weeks to heal, with some extra external protection on his forearm, Davis should be able to take the field. Panthers head athletic trainer and physical therapist Ryan Vermillion constructed a carbon graphite shell for former Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith's forearm when he returned to action after a similar injury. He will do so again for Davis, who has already initiated his post-operative rehabilitation.
Will he have discomfort? Probably. Will he have full strength in his arm? Probably not. Might he suffer another injury? He might. But this is not a player who should be underestimated when it comes to toughness. After all, he went through three consecutive ACL rehabilitation efforts before returning in 2012 and notching more than 100 tackles. And, oh, by the way, he has had at least 100 tackles in each of the three years since.
Given that Davis was the first NFL player to return to the field after three torn ACLs in the same knee, no one with any sense is going to question his toughness. But we're also talking about Davis playing with a broken arm. In the Super Bowl. Likely after little to no practice time in the days leading up to the game Feb. 7.
Best case? Davis guts it out, albeit at less than 100 percent and in less than his usual role as an every-down player. Worst case? Davis is a liability on the field and/or aggravates the injury and winds up sidelined again.
In either case, Thompson and Klein have to be ready to play the game of their lives.
Luckily for the Panthers, both young linebackers are at least somewhat prepared thanks to the grind that is the NFL's regular season.
|Shaq Thompson and A.J. Klein in Regular Season|
|*Pro Football Focus|
With Kuechly on the shelf early in the season because of a concussion, Klein was pushed into the starting lineup. By season's end, he had made half a dozen starts, tallied more than 50 tackles and chipped in a sack, a forced fumble and an interception.
Thompson, Carolina's first-round selection in the 2015 draft, played an even larger role for the team, making 10 starts as the Panthers' third linebacker (on the strong side) in base-defense sets.
|Shaq Thompson and A.J. Klein: PFF Grades|
|Player||Overall||vs. Run||Coverage||Overall Rank|
|*As 4-3 outside linebackers|
In fact, Thompson's grade for the season was slightly higher than Davis'—and that of Pro Bowler Lavonte David of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, considered by many the NFL's gold standard at his position.
The wildly athletic Thompson—who played linebacker, safety and even running back a year ago at the University of Washington—stepped seamlessly into Davis' role against Arizona. The rookie picked up five tackles, and Davis told Jeff Gluck of USA Today that Thompson "went in and played well."
However, while Carolina is about as well-equipped to deal with the possible absence of a linebacker of Davis' caliber as any team can reasonably be expected to be, there are a few reasons for concern.
For starters, while Thompson played well as a rookie, he had a tendency to swing and miss. Per PFF, he has missed nine tackles in 427 snaps. Davis has missed just 13 tackles in 1,117 snaps. Kuechly has missed only six tackles in 905 snaps.
Klein, to his credit, has missed three tackles in 328 snaps.
Also, while Thompson and Klein did OK in coverage in 2015 (Thompson received a positive grade, Klein the neutral 0.0), neither player was asked to do that much, especially in subpackages.
Davis, on the other hand, ranked fourth in the NFL in coverage this season.
Against the Broncos, that could be an issue. Say what you will about Peyton Manning's arm strength, but he remains one of the league's best at finding the weak spot in a coverage. He will go to that weak spot over and over, as evidenced by Owen Daniels' pair of touchdown grabs in the AFC Championship Game.
Finally, while it's hard to take too much from one game, it appeared the moment may have gotten to Thompson against the Cardinals. He missed a pair of tackles, and his minus-0.9 grade from PFF was his second lowest of the year.
Super Bowl butterflies are the size of condors. They have been known to rattle the most grizzled of veterans, much less rookies.
A rookie appears set to play a big part in Super Bowl 50. So does a third-year role player.
It's possible this will all be moot. Davis is as resilient as they come, and he might join Jack Youngblood—who played through a broken leg—in Super Bowl lore. And in Ron Rivera, the Panthers have a head coach who has not only played linebacker but done so on the biggest stage in sports.
Of course, it's equally possible that, just like Youngblood, a hobbled Davis will be a shell of his usual self.
And if that's the case, Thompson and Klein will have to fill his shoes, lest Carolina suffer the same fate as Youngblood and the 1979 Los Angeles Rams.
Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPSharks.