GREEN BAY, Wis. – Even when things aren't going Luke Kuechly's way – something that has happened more in the last month than happened all of last season – everyone knows Kuechly will still give his all until the bitter end.
Sunday in Green Bay, the bitter end came much earlier than anyone could have ever expected.
Late in the third quarter, with the swan song on the Panthers' realistic hopes of winning having already played, Kuechly was ejected. The NFL's reigning defensive player of the year and a true ambassador of the game had to jog off the field and watch on television from the locker room as his teammates trudged on in a 38-17 loss.
Kuechly was ejected because of how he reacted in an emotionally charged situation – and because of how an official reacted in an emotionally charged situation.
Kuechly – and back judge Steve Freeman – were at the wrong place at the wrong time.
"I've got to go back and watch it. A lot of things happen quickly in those types of situations," said Kuechly, who still managed to pace the Panthers with eight tackles. "I just felt somebody grab me. It's an emotional game, but you've just got to walk away."
That's the thing. Kuechly was walking away.
When Packers running back Eddie Lacy fumbled, creating a mass of humanity around the ball often seen in such a situation, Kuechly was a part of the pile. Pushing and shoving - as is common in that situation – ensued. Packers tight end Richard Rodgers, the son the Panthers special teams coordinator of the same name, and Kuechly got tangled up.
When safety Thomas DeCoud began pulling Rodgers off the pile, Kuechly came right along with him like a stuffed animal being raised by the giant claw at the arcade. Kuechly rose to his feet in an understandable fit of rage, at which time Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari grabbed Kuechly's left arm from behind.
Just as Kuechly began to wrestle free and walk away, Freeman grabbed Kuechly in the same part of his body. Kuechly swung his left arm to free himself, and when he did, he nearly hit the back judge with an elbow. A flag flew, and Kuechly's day was done.
"The kid reacted to somebody grabbing him by the neck and pulling him out of the pile," head coach Ron Rivera said. "Then somebody grabbed him by the waist. Well, the guy who grabbed him by the waist just happened to be the ref. That's why he reacted; he thought another player was coming into grab him.
"Unfortunately, that's what happened."
Kuechly said all the right things after the game – no surprise – saying that he needed to keep his cool regardless of the circumstances. His ejection didn't impact the outcome of the game. If there's something worth losing his cool over, it is that fact.
Before the defense knew what had hit it, the Panthers trailed 21-0 in the first quarter. And it all started when Kuechly jumped offside trying to blitz on the game's opening drive – the second consecutive jump by the defense. Safety Roman Harper had an interception nullified by Kuechly's penalty, and after Green Bay went from facing third-and-12 to third-and-2, quarterback Aaron Rodgers scrambled for 3 yards for a first down to keep the drive alive.
The following snap went for a 59-yard touchdown. The next two Packers' drives resulted in touchdowns as well, with both aided by crucial penalties against Carolina.
"It's tough. It's one thing when another team beats you, and it's another when you do stuff internally that hurts you," Kuechly said. "A couple of times we jumped offside. That's us. The ball wasn't even snapped, and we jumped offside. We made a point of it during the week that he (Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers) loves to hard-count, and we've got to do a better job in those situations.
"We had them exactly where we wanted them on the first drive. That could have built a little momentum for us. We've just got to do a better job in that situation by playing smart and executing."
For the fourth time this season, the Panthers allowed 37 or more points – something that didn't happen at all last year. The defense has been stout in the other three games – all wins – while the Panthers did salvage a 37-37 tie a week ago in Cincinnati.
The up-and-down play all adds up to a 3-3-1 record, which is good enough for the NFC South lead.
Still, it isn't good enough.
"We've just got to be consistent," Kuechly said. "It's shown throughout the year that when we're playing well and we're doing our job, we can be pretty dag-gone good. When we're not doing our job, this stuff happens.
"You can look at certain games this year where we played really well, and it's fun. It feels like it's supposed to feel. Guys are flying around. Guys are excited. Guys are making plays. That's what we need to be consistently good at it. It's simple – effort, intensity, knowing what we're supposed to do and making plays. I think we've got the defense to do it. We've just got to be consistent."