By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — You know a Hall of Famer when you see one. Make no mistake about it: Luke Kuechly was a Hall of Famer.
Whether he actually gets enshrined in Canton is almost immaterial to the argument, as any potential exclusion would be due entirely to the relative brevity of his NFL career. But on the field, where he was a five-time First Team All-Pro, a seven-time Pro Bowler, and a two-time Second Team All-Pro? Where he was an NFL Defensive Player of the Year, where he earned NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, where he twice led the NFL in tackles, where he collected a handful of other awards over the course of his eight seasons?
That fellow is a Hall of Famer. The cases don’t get much simpler than that.
And while Kuechly took the field for 125 games, manning the field in the middle of the Panthers’ defense for 7,636 defensive snaps, his retirement announcement on Tuesday night brought to mind a mostly unremarkable four-snap stretch in a Week 4 game in 2017.
The reason for that is quite simple: That was the only time I got to see him in person at the NFL level. And while everyone could have seen on TV that Kuechly was a Hall of Fame talent, you never do forget those moments when you see one in person.
In this case, Kuechly shone in a stretch of the game that was otherwise rather unremarkable. In fact, it came on a drive when the Patriots scored a touchdown against the Panthers. Nevertheless, the otherworldly blend of talent, speed, and strength was on display for four consecutive snaps at the end of the first quarter.
The first snap came on a first-and-10 from the New England 26-yard line. Kuechly found himself in a 1-on-1 blocking situation against Rob Gronkowski, one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL. Despite that worthy foe, Kuechly casually discarded Gronkowski to make an open-field tackle on Mike Gillislee.
It was a gain of nine yards, but the side-stepping and shedding of the mammoth Gronkowski before stopping a full-speed running back nevertheless stood out.
On the next play,Gronkowski was again tasked with blocking Kuechly. Gronkowski did a better job on this one, but Kuechly was still able to drive through Gronkowski and force Gillislee to cut toward the sideline. Kuechly then, with one arm still engaged on Gronkowski, grabbed Gillislee with one hand and brought him down to the turf.
That run was enough for a fresh set of downs, but Kuechly was clearly playing a special brand of football.
On the next snap, a first-and-10, the Patriots went back to Gillislee. This time, Kuechly didn’t have to deal with Gronkowski, so he nonchalantly flew into the backfield and ripped Gillislee to the turf for no gain.
After what could reasonably considered to be physically exhaustive work, Kuechly’s next task was … covering the flat and then tackling fullback James Develin in the open field. That type of assignment is no picnic no matter the circumstances, but considering the effort that Kuechly had just exerted over the previous three snaps, he could’ve been forgiven for letting the bowling ball known as Develin to slip through his grasp.
Kuechly, though, brought Develin down without issue.
That is some big boy football right there.
As previously stated, the Patriots ended up driving for a touchdown. Kuechly drew an offensive pass interference penalty on Gronkowski a few plays later, and Tom Brady smartly avoided the Kuechly-Gronkowski matchup when throwing a touchdown to Chris Hogan to end the drive.
The Panthers would win this game, and Kuechly finished with 14 tackles (12 of them solo tackles), more than anyone on either team. He had no picks, no forced fumbles, and no sacks, so it won’t get remembered as a remarkable game on Kuechly’s resume.
But the physical dominance shown on those four snaps was the type of performance that few players in the history of the league have ever been able to exhibit. Kuechly did it on a regular basis, every week, every snap.
After suffering three documented concussions (and likely many more undocumented ones) during his NFL career, he’s undoubtedly making the right decision for his own life. Yet the game of football will surely miss Luke Kuechly.