CHARLOTTE — For any positives the Panthers might have taken out of Friday's preseason finale against the Bills (there were a few), the crutches on either side of the locker room were the biggest concern.
On one end, kicker Zane Gonzalez walked out of the room slowly and gingerly after suffering a groin injury. On the other, quarterback Sam Darnold's personal items and another set of crutches were gathered up by team employees as he remained in the training room getting his injured left ankle checked.
Neither player talked to reporters after the game, but the mood in the room and the wince on Gonzalez's face spoke volumes.
Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said after the 21-0 win over the Bills they were still waiting on more tests on both players, offering no updates beyond the belief-slash-hope that Darnold did not suffer a fracture. NFL Network reported Darnold suffered a high ankle sprain, but he will get an MRI on Saturday morning to determine the extent of the damage.
"We'll have to wait and see what it is," Rhule said. "Sam's a tough kid, and he usually comes back pretty quickly, but we'll have to wait and see."
"Obviously it's very unfortunate," quarterback Baker Mayfield said. "We were praying for him and thinking about him. He seemed like he was in good spirits, for the most part. Obviously I don't know any details about the extent of the injury, but you never want to see that with anybody, but especially a teammate going off on a cart."
Before the injury, Darnold would have likely been the only other quarterback on the 53-man roster behind Mayfield after final cuts on Tuesday. Now, the length of time Darnold might miss will complicate several decisions. If the injury isn't long-term, the Panthers could activate him from injured reserve after as few as four games. But that would require carrying him on the 53-man roster through final cuts, which would mean exposing another player to waivers if they kept PJ Walker as well.
The kicking situation is also up in the air, after Gonzalez went down with a groin injury during the third quarter while warming up on the sideline.
"I didn't see what happened at first, but I saw him after the fact grabbing at his groin a little bit," said punter Johnny Hekker, who was next to Gonzalez as he kicked into a net.
"I knew; I've been around kickers that have had something go there. It's unfortunate for him; he's worked his tail off, he's a great, great kicker. In my eyes, one of the best in the league. Top, top leg talent. He'll bounce back from this and be a pro in his whole recovery, and we'll have his back the whole way. I'm hopeful his future has a lot of great stuff for the Carolina Panthers. . . .
"It just stinks for a guy that's worked so hard to have his body feeling really good, and a freak situation to happen like that. That sucks."
In that regard, the nature of the injury was reminiscent of when Gonzalez injured his quad during pregame last year in Buffalo.
"It's a very similar situation now," long snapper JJ Jansen said. "He's kicking fantastic, lights out in practice, lights out in games, guys love him, so that was tough. First for him, then for the team. Obviously, tonight was a tough night for him and Sam, a lot of guys getting nicked up, but those two in particular."
If there was any good news, it was that defensive tackle Derrick Brown shrugged off the in-game announcement that he was out for the rest of the game with an oblique injury. It was announced after he and the first defense were done for the night anyway, and he shook his head when asked about it.
"I'm fine," Brown said. "Not a problem. I could have gone back in."
Tight end/fullback Giovanni Ricci also exited early with a groin injury, making Saturday morning's medical meeting a lengthy and important one as the Panthers plan their next steps.
View photos of Carolina's matchup against Buffalo at Bank of America Stadium in the final game of the preseason.