CHARLOTTE (AP) — The Carolina Panthers find themselves in an unusual state of flux for a team off to a perfect 3-0 start.
Leading up to Sunday’s game against division foe Tampa Bay, the Panthers are dealing with personnel changes, key injuries and some off-field controversy involving their high-profile quarterback and a well-known referee.
— New defensive end Jared Allen practiced for the first time Wednesday, one day after the team’s top pass rusher Charles Johnson was placed on eight-week injured reserve with a hamstring injury.
— Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly remains in the NFL concussion protocol after missing the last two games with no clear indication of when he’ll return.
— Veteran defensive tackle Colin Cole was surprisingly released before practice and replaced by defensive end Ryan Delaire, who was signed off the Washington Redskins practice squad.
— And quarterback Cam Newton is still in the middle of an I-said, you-said dispute with the NFL and its Referee’s Association after saying that referee Ed Hochuli told him that he “wasn’t old enough” to have a personal foul call go his way during Sunday’s game against the New Orleans Saints.
Never a dull moment, it seems with these Panthers.
The 33-year-old Allen was acquired from Chicago in a trade earlier this week and is coach Ron Rivera said he is expected to start Sunday at Tampa Bay and play about 35-40 plays.
The high-energy Allen said he’s thrilled with the trade because it allows him to get back to playing in a 4-3 defensive scheme, something he said better suits his strengths.
“I’m not a standup 3-4 guy,” Allen said. “I gave it the old college try (in Chicago) and I put the work in. … (But) this allows me to go back to my more natural position. This is where I feel comfortable. I understand the game with my hand in the ground. I feel like I can play faster and stronger.”
Tampa Bay coach Lovie Smith joked on a conference call Wednesday that “yes, we’ve heard the news” about Allen’s arrival and the team is adjusting its game plan accordingly.
“We know who Jared Allen is, believe me,” Smith said. “… He’s been a great player in the league for a long time and still plays at a high level. The Panthers are a better defense with him there.”
The Panthers would like nothing more than to get Kuechly on the field with Allen.
Rivera had expressed optimism on Monday that Kuechly might return to practice this week, but the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year remains in the concussion protocol 17 days after a head-on collision with Jacksonville Jaguars running back T.J. Yeldon in Week 1.
Rivera backed off his early week optimism on Kuechly on Wednesday, tersely saying “I’m not a doctor. I’m a football coach. … Where he is (in the concussion protocol), I don’t know.”
Kuechly was one of seven players who didn’t participate in practice on Wednesday as the Panthers prepare for their final game before a much-needed bye week to get healthy.
Running back Jonathan Stewart (tibia), Mike Tolbert (groin), wide receivers Philly Brown (illness) and Jerricho Cotchery (ankle), offensive tackle Daryl Williams (knee) and defensive tackle Dwan Edwards (rest) did not work, while outside linebacker Thomas Davis (chest) was limited.
Newton practiced and was his normal jovial self on the field, hamming it up with teammates during the stretching period.
But the fifth-year quarterback turned a little more serious during in his weekly press conference when the topic turned to Hochuli.
NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said earlier this week that Hochuli disputed Newton’s comments. The league considers the matter over and won’t be investigating any further.
The Referee’s Association also sent out a strongly-worded news release supporting Hochuli and refuting Newton’s comments.
At first Newton sidestepped the issue, saying he wanted to move on focus on Tampa Bay. But when pressed on the matter, Newton didn’t back off his comments from Sunday, saying, “Did you expect (Hochuli) to say anything else?”