The Panthers’ version of home run derby takes place every Sunday when Graham Gano lines up to kick off.
As Gano sends his kicks into – and often through – the back of the end zone, punter Brad Nortman and long-snapper J.J. Jansen watch to see how far they’ll go.
A kick through the end zone but short of the wall is warning track power. Kickoffs caroming off the wall are doubles, and those reaching the seats are homers.
“He’s hit a lot of doubles off the wall,” Jansen said. “He’s been kicking the ball so well. It’s fun to watch.”
Gano’s booming kickoffs serve as more than a source of amusement for the Panthers’ specialists. They’re a strategic tool that can swing field position and keep wear and tear off players on the coverage team.
Gano, who joined the Panthers late last season after they cut Justin Medlock, is tied with New England’s Stephen Gostkowski for the league lead in percentage of kickoffs (93.3 percent) that result in touchbacks.
Entering this weekend’s games – the Panthers have a bye week – Gano and Gostkowski have allowed one of their 15 kickoffs to be returned.
Gano’s first 14 kickoffs were touchbacks – a streak that ended in the fourth quarter last weekend when the Giants’ David Wilson returned one from the back of the end zone with the Panthers leading 38-0.
“He brought it out from nine and three-quarters (yards deep),” Gano said. “He’s a good kickoff returner, so I think he was getting a little frustrated.”
Kickoff returners across the league are likely becoming increasingly frustrated. When the NFL moved kickoffs from the kicking team’s 30-yard line to the 35 in 2011 in an attempt to reduce serious injuries, critics claimed the play would become obsolete.
According to the New York Post – citing statistics from the Elias Sports Bureau – 44 percent of kickoffs ended in touchbacks the first two seasons after the rule change. But that figure has increased to 63.5 percent this year.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he doesn’t try to outthink himself when it comes to Gano and second-year punter Brad Nortman, whose 49.4-yard average ranks third in the league.
Rivera said he and special teams coordinator Richard Rodgers tell Gano to “kick it far,” and have instructed Nortman not to worry about angling his punts out of bounds.
“I think both our punter and kicker are very relaxed right now,” Rivera said. “We just want to continue to not over-coach those guys and just give them opportunities to do what they do best. And that’s kick the ball away.”
“A lot of teams are doing that now,” Gano said. “If the kicker can kick it out of the back (of the end zone), you might as well. But there’s different situations where you want to kick left and right, so it just depends on the game-time situation.”
Gano, 26, who kicked and punted at Florida State, spent his first three seasons in Washington until the Redskins cut him before last season in favor of Billy Cundiff. The Panthers signed him in late-November, and Jansen said kicking in colder weather masked Gano’s leg strength.
Gano hit 9 of 11 field goals, with a long of 51 yards, in six games last year. He was seventh in the league in touchback percentage at 57.1.
Gano has hit all four of his field goal tries this season, with a long of 53.
Jansen said Gano, 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, is stronger than he looks.
“A few folks have mentioned he doesn’t look big. So they’re always impressed by his leg strength. But the reality is he’s really strong in the weight room,” Jansen said. “He’s committed to being in there. Really strong core, really strong legs. He’s in really top shape.
“It’s a little like a golf swing. Those golfers that can hit it a ton, they don’t have to be the biggest guy. But they get everything timing up right and they’ve got the appropriate strength and swing speed.”
Nortman, who’s also the Panthers’ holder, said Gano’s leg strength is evident at impact.
“I can get a good feel for how a kicker is kicking based on the hold because I’m so close to the ball when contact is made on field goals,” Nortman said. “The way it pops when he hits is unlike any kicker I’ve had before. Every time he kicks it, it just sounds like a solid hit every time.”
And though Nortman has a less intimate view of Gano’s kickoffs, they’ve been equally impressive. Gano’s first kickoff against the Giants went through the uprights, bounced off the top off the wall and carried into the stands – a home run “off the top of the yellow line” in Jansen’s parlance.
“We kind of see it travel, look up and take bets,” Nortman said. “Is this going into the stands? Is this going through the uprights? It makes it really fun. And he’s a huge weapon for us. For our team’s success, it’s major.”
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