In all but one game over the past seven years, Jordan Gross has lined up at tackle as Carolina's highest-paid and most effective blocker.
Now Jake Delhomme's blind-side protector will watch the rest of the season while wearing a cast, just when the Panthers were starting to feel confident with their recent streak of good play.
Gross was recovering from surgery Monday, a day after breaking his right ankle when an Atlanta player fell into his leg in the Panthers' 28-19 victory. The 2008 Pro Bowl pick, who had missed only one game in his career, is lost for the season.
"He's a leader, a top-10 pick," Delhomme said of the eighth selection in the 2003 draft. "He was placed at tackle at the first minicamp and he hasn't left."
Except for one game last season when he was recovering from a concussion, Gross has been the anchor of the line going back to Carolina's Super Bowl season in 2003. Now two men face new roles in trying to replace him: veteran Travelle Wharton and untested Mackenzy Bernadeau.
When Gross went down in the second quarter Sunday, Wharton moved from left guard to left tackle, a position where he has 33 career starts. Bernadeau, who has played only as a short-yardage fullback and on tackle-eligible plays in his two years in the NFL, moved to Wharton's spot.
The Panthers weren't overly impressive on offense in the second half, but they held on to beat the Falcons. Now they have little time to prepare, with only two practices scheduled before Thursday's game against Miami.
"Everybody came up to me and were telling me it was time to step up and that we need you here," Bernadeau said. "I knew that."
The Panthers (4-5) were more equipped to deal with offensive line injuries last season, when they had capable and veteran backups in Geoff Hangartner, Jeremy Bridges and Frank Omiyale.
But Hangartner signed a lucrative free-agent deal and is the starting center in Buffalo. Omiyale got big money from Chicago, where he started at guard until being replaced recently. Bridges, released in a salary-cap move, is a backup in Arizona.
"Mac Bernadeau is a young kid we like," Delhomme said. "Same thing happened last year with Frank Omiyale and Hangartner. They had to step in and they parlayed it into some good contracts for them. I think this is something Mac will enjoy."
The 6-foot-4, 320-pound Bernadeau was a 2008 seventh-round pick out of Division II Bentley in Waltham, Mass. He didn't appear in a game last season.
Now he'll be depended on to open inside holes for running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. He'll also be counted on to think and act quickly if the Panthers continue with the effective no-huddle offense they used against the Falcons.
Bernadeau did open a key hole in Stewart's 45-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter that sealed the victory on Sunday. Williams, who rushed for 92 yards, thinks the Panthers can continue their success with a new-look line.
"We see Mac step in all the time. They mix up those pretty good during the course of the season (in practice) just in case something like this happens," Williams said. "I think he can step up and play a great role."
Williams played some with Wharton at left tackle early in his career when Gross played on the right side. Gross moved to left tackle last season, earned his first Pro Bowl trip, then cashed in with a six-year deal that pays him about $30 million in the first three seasons.
Sunday was the second straight week Carolina lost one of its top players for the season. Similar to Landon Johnson in replacing weakside linebacker Thomas Davis, Bernadeau needs to grow up quickly.
"Jordan Gross, everybody called him 'Franchise,'" receiver Muhsin Muhammad said. "It's hard to fill those shoes, but we expect guys to come in and play."