As one of the Carolina Panthers’ two kickers approached a group of reporters following Sunday’s practice, a little smile came across Graham Gano’s face.
The eight-year veteran knew what was coming.
The fact that the Panthers ended up with two kickers on the 53-man roster, is it kind of weird?
“That’s the NFL,” Gano said. “Yeah, not weird.”
But it’s certainly unusual.
Gano, the Panthers’ kicker since midway through the 2012 season, said he’s never been in this situation.
“No, I’ve never been on the 53 with two kickers. But I’m excited to be here,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m going to be here this week. That’s how I’m preparing for the job. I feel like I’m hitting the ball great and just excited to be here.”
The Panthers have been gauging the trade interest in Gano and rookie kicker Harrison Butker for the past couple of weeks, and did so again Saturday before the deadline to trim rosters from 90 players to 53.
But that deadline came and went, and so there were Gano and Butker on Sunday, hanging out during practice with long snapper J.J. Jansen and punter Michael Palardy.
How much longer will the Panthers employ two kickers?
“That’s a hard question to answer. You see how it goes,” interim general manager Marty Hurney said. “Right now we feel like we’ve been able to do it. It could be a long time or a short time.”
Hurney said the situation with the kickers is a “fluid process,” which suggests he’s going to continue working the phones to see if any team is willing to give up something worthwhile for Gano or Butker.
In the meantime, there’s the matter of the Panthers’ Week 1 game at San Francisco.
Both Hurney and head coach Ron Rivera said if both kickers remain on the roster on Sept. 10, Gano would likely get the nod.
“I’m leaning toward the experienced guy,” Rivera said. “Graham really had a pretty good camp. I know we’d have loved to have seen him make that last one. But he’s had an outstanding camp.”
The last kick Rivera referenced was Gano’s 51-yard field goal attempt in last week’s exhibition finale vs. Pittsburgh. Gano banged it off the upright, just as he did a 50-yarder in the first exhibition against Houston and –more problematically – another 50-yarder in Denver last year that would have lifted the Panthers to a Week 1 win the Super Bowl rematch.
“I hit it well. It just hit the post,” Gano said of last week’s kick.
Andy Lee, who lost the punting competition to Palardy, called Gano’s caroms off the uprights unlucky.
“That’s what it is, it’s just unlucky,” Gano said. “I’ve just got to come out to practice and work and get better.”
While Gano went 3-for-5 on field goals during the preseason, Butker was 2-for-2 with a long of 51 yards. Butker, the seventh-round pick and the first kicker ever drafted by the Panthers, politely declined comment when leaving practice Sunday.
But Rivera said if the Panthers ultimately choose Gano over Butker, he thinks keeping Butker on the practice squad would be a good option – assuming he clears waivers. The Panthers have an extra practice-squad spot this year because defensive end Efe Obada, part of the NFL’s international development program, does not count against the 10-player limit.
Rivera, a former Philadelphia assistant, recalled how former Eagles coach Andy Reid kept kicker David Akers on the practice squad in the late 1990s when Chris Boniol was the team’s starting kicker.
“And David turned out to be a tremendous kicker in this league for a long, long time,” Rivera said. “So it’s not like I haven’t been around it. It’s something you’ve got to look at.”
Gano said the situation has not led to any awkwardness between him and Butker, whom Gano called “a good kid.”
Nor has Gano approached Rivera or Hurney to ask for any updates on the trade talks.
“As long as I’m here, I’m going to be here. Coach Rivera always says be where your feet are and that’s what I’m going to do,” he said. “I’m going to keep preparing like I’m playing this week. And as far as I know, I am.”