Mike Scifres spent the past month working on his golf game in San Diego, doting on his newborn daughter and waiting for his surgically repaired knee to heal.
The downtime allowed the former Chargers punter to improve his swing, gain a greater appreciation for parenthood and find a new team.
Scifres, who played his first 13 seasons in San Diego, is hoping to stick with the Carolina Panthers and prove that last year’s sub-par season was an aberration.
“I was part of a great organization for 13 years and made some lifelong friends in San Diego,” Scifres said. “It was different walking in. But now I’m a Panther. I’m going to embrace that and get to know every single one of them as much as I can.”
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Scifres (pronounced SIGH-fres) was signed last week to bring a veteran presence to the Panthers’ punting competition, created when Brad Nortman signed with Jacksonville in March. Carolina had been eyeing Scifres since San Diego released him in May after drafting punter Drew Kaser in the sixth round.
The Panthers wanted an experienced punter to compete with former CFL standout Swayze Waters, whose only NFL punts have come in preseason games.
“I think what it did is it added a consistency,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said after Tuesday’s minicamp practice. “We’ve been following Mike for about the last month. We just had to wait until his leg was well enough to come and punt for us. He came and punted, and punted very well. So we thought we had to give him an opportunity.”
Scifres, who signed a 1-year deal worth $1 million in base salary with Carolina, refused to use his health as an excuse for last year’s struggles.
“I will never blame a performance on an injury or anything like that,” he said. “But I did have some stuff last year that I got taken care of when the season ended, and feel a lot better than I did this time last year.”
Scifres declined to specify the nature of his injuries. But Rivera, a Chargers assistant for four years while Scifres was in San Diego, indicated Scifres’ issues involved his left – or non-kicking – knee.
“He had it cleaned out after the season,” Rivera said. “But he played the whole year with it until the very end, and didn’t complain about it from what we’re being told. So kudos to him.”
Scifres, drafted by San Diego in the fifth round in 2003, missed the final three games of the 2014 season after breaking his collarbone on a blocked punt against New England.
He returned in 2015 and averaged 45.3 yards per punt, nearly identical to his career mark. But Scifres’ 38.2-yard net average ranked 27th among the league’s 32 top punters.
‘Best punter in the league’
“For a long time there were a lot of coaches that thought he was the best punter in the league. He could just take (returners) out of the game,” Panthers special teams coordinator Bruce DeHaven said. “He had better hang-time punts than anybody else in the league. If he can continue to do that, then we’ll be in great shape.”
DeHaven likes what he’s seen from Scifres during his first week in Charlotte. But he also has been pleased that Waters has not wilted under the pressure.
“He’s still probably working himself back into shape. But he’s hit a couple great punts in practice,” DeHaven said of Scifres.
“It looks like it’s going to be a pretty good competition. Swayze didn’t back off when Mike came in here with all his experience. They had a nice day with their punting (Tuesday). We’ve still got some work to do. But they’re both doing well right now.”
When the Chargers released him following the draft, Scifres thought Carolina would be a cool landing spot.
“Watching what this team did last year and knowing Ron and knowing a bunch of the guys here, this team’s built to win. I thought if I did have one last shot to play I thought this would be a fun place to do it,” he said. “A fun group of guys, great coaching staff, great organization. It’s been everything I thought it would be since I got here.”
Scifres went to high school in Louisiana, but admits it’s taken some time to get adjusted to the Carolina humidity after more than a dozen years in southern California. San Diego will always be home, but Scifres says he likes the vibe in Charlotte and feels good physically and mentally.
As for how long he’ll play, Scifres said: “I’m just going to go until they tell me I can’t. We’ll see how it goes.”