During an eventful two-day span in April, Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano had a couple of young guys enter his life.
Both were expected – and welcomed.
A day after the Panthers drafted a kicker (Georgia Tech’s Harrison Butker) for the first time in their history to give Gano training camp competition, Gano’s wife gave birth to the couple’s third son.
The additions have kept Gano on his toes this spring – not to mention his surgically repaired plant foot.
“It’s been fun competing against him. He’s a good kid. I know that’s the nature of the game,” Gano said of Butker. “They told me that’s what was going to happen. They were either going to pick up a young guy after or draft a kid. It didn’t really catch me by surprise. I’m looking forward to it. It’ll be fun.”
Last season wasn’t much fun for Gano, whose eight missed field goals were his most in five seasons with Carolina.
He started the season with a thud – by missing the game-winning field goal at Denver – and ended it by misfiring on three of his four field goal attempts in a Week 17 loss at Tampa Bay.
In between, Gano was consistent despite dealing with a foot injury that bothered him late in the season and required surgery in January.
Gano was born with a small, extra bone in the back of both ankles, a condition that affects about 5 to 10 percent of the population and often goes unnoticed. But in athletes who are frequently on their toes, such as kickers, ballet dancers and skaters, the condition can cause pain and stiffness around the ankles.
Panthers Dr. Robert Anderson removed the bone from Gano’s foot after it snapped late last season. He had the same surgery on his right foot after his rookie season in Washington.
“I feel way better after having the bone taken out. It was frustrating last year dealing with that and how the season ended,” Gano said after Tuesday’s OTA practice. “I’m starting to get back in the rhythm now and feeling really good. It’s been a while since I kicked without pain. So it’s definitely a nice thing.”
Gano said he didn’t want to blame his injury on his issues last season – in part because he doesn’t think his 2016 performance was all that bad other than the first and last games.
“It’s my job to make those kicks, whether you’re hurt or not,” he said. “It’s good to be healthy now. But I can’t say it was affecting me.”
The Panthers have brought in kickers previously to take some of the wear and tear off Gano in training camp, but Butker represents Gano’s first real competition in Charlotte.
Butker, 21, the seventh-round pick, made 71.7 percent of his field goals at Georgia Tech while converting a school-record 208 of 210 extra points, including his last 102 in a row.
Butker, 6-foot-4 and 199 pounds, has a stronger leg but is still getting adjusted to the NFL’s bigger ball, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said last week.
Gano, 30, says he’s enjoyed working with and getting to know Butker, who – like Gano – started his athletic career by playing soccer.
“Competition’s always exciting. It’s fun just to be able to come out and compete, especially against a young kid,” Gano said. “He’s got a lively leg. It’s been good. I think it makes both of us better.”
Rivera believes adding Butker to the mix will bring out the best in Gano when the competition heats up in Spartanburg.
“Graham’s a confident guy. And he’s got the right type of demeanor,” Rivera said. “Sometimes you bring somebody in and it does send a message. Sometimes they get the message, sometimes they don’t. Once we get into training camp, I think we’ll really get a good sense as to how he’s handling it.”
While his field-goal accuracy suffered last year, Gano was still effective on kickoffs.
The Panthers held opponents to an average of 18.1 yards per kick return, the best mark in the league. Gano’s 74.2 touchback percentage since 2013 also is first in the NFL over that span.
Gano tried a pair of 60-yard field goals (without a defensive rush) during Tuesday’s practice. He pulled the first one wide left before connecting on the second one.
“I’m feeling pretty good,” he said. “Leg’s still feeling young and still powerful.”
Gano says he didn’t change anything in his offseason routine, other than having to account for another boy around the house – and another kicker at the office.
“I haven’t changed anything, other than being healthy,” Gano said. “I think every time you compete against somebody it’s motivation. It’s been good. He’s going to make me better. I’m going to make him better. It’ll be a fun competition.”
The kick is . . .
Graham Gano’s eight missed field goals last season were his most as a Panther: