If Graham Gano had it his way after Carolina’s 21-20 loss to the Broncos, he would have taken off his gray Panthers sweatsuit and put his white jersey and white pants back on.
He’d take a left out of the locker room, walk through the tunnel and make his mark at the 40-yard line. With 9 seconds back on the clock, Gano would kick that 50-yard field goal again and it would split the uprights.
But a 23-21 Panthers victory and a 1-0 start to the season didn’t happen, of course. No fewer than four times after the loss did Gano say he wished he could have the kick that went wide left back.
“I wish I could go back out there and do it again,” the fifth-year Panthers kicker said. “I wish every game would end in a situation like that.
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“I’ve drilled a ton of game-winners in my career and I’m sure I’ll hit more.”
He will. That’s the nature of this game. The NFL is a league that thrives on games decided by seven points or fewer.
Last year Gano had two game-winning kicks for the Panthers. He buried a 52-yarder in overtime against the Colts to keep the Panthers’ perfect season alive.
The following month he nailed a 43-yarder against the Giants to take the Panthers to 14-0.
This is what the Panthers signed him for. After more than a year of poor kicking post-John Kasay,Carolina got Gano midway through the 2012 season. After the 2013 season, they gave him an four-year, $12.4 million deal to send kickoffs out of the back of the end zone and make big field goals.
Gano has had the best touchback percentage in football since 2013, and his 146 points last season set a team record. But those 50-plus-yard field goals have been pesky for Gano.
Gano is 14-of-24 from 50-plus in his career with 10 makes and five misses with the Panthers.
He had no excuse for his miss Thursday night. It wasn’t the altitude or the timeout taken by Denver coach Gary Kubiak. It wasn’t the snap by J.J. Jansen or the hold by punter Andy Lee, who had held for Gano for only one game.
Gano just missed it. And just like kickers know immediately that they’d made the kick, he knew instantly that he had pushed it wide left.
Not only does Gano and the rest of his teammates know that he can make that kick but that he did make that kick minutes earlier.
Just after Kubiak called timeout, Jansen snapped the ball and Gano put it through the uprights with plenty of room to spare. They do that, Jansen said, because you can never be sure if what you heard (like a referee’s whistle) is actually what you heard.
He made that kick just like he knew he was going to make the one when it mattered. “I was going to drill it. No doubt in my mind,” Gano said when I asked what was going through his head before the kick.
“I hurt for him because he kicked the ball really well tonight,” Jansen said. “That’s the way it goes.
“He’s so mentally tough. It’s something that you almost…we try to learn things from him. That’s how mentally tough he is.”
Former Panthers cornerback Peanut Tillman sought out Gano in the locker room, put his hands on his shoulders and told him words of encouragement. Jansen waited until Gano was done with his media session before speaking with him.
“I should have made that kick. Bottom line,” Gano told me. “It’ll eat at me for a little while but I’m going to help us win a lot of games this year, and I’m sure that we will. I’m not going to let one kick define who I am.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera hadn’t talked to Gano individually until about 30 minutes after the game. Gano was walking from the shower back to his locker when Rivera stopped him, shook his hand and kept eye contact.
You’re going to make game-winners for us, Rivera said. Through the sting of the miss, Gano nodded his head.