In today’s NFL kicking game, you either adapt or wither away.
Panthers kicker Graham Gano knows that. No, he didn’t like that the point-after attempt was moved back from the 2 to the 15-yard line last season. And no, he doesn’t care much for the new touchback rule that gives teams the ball at the 25-yard-line instead of the 20.
Depending upon how you look at it, Gano’s position has become marginalized in the past few years or it’s become more precise. Either way, he has to keep up.
“If the game’s changing, I’ll change with it,” Gano said after Tuesday’s practice. “I think at this level you’ve got to be flexible. You’ve got to have a lot of clubs in your bag. You have to be able to hit the ball where they want you to, because if you can’t they’ll find someone else.”
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Two years ago the Panthers signed Gano to a four-year, $12.4 million contract that has him in the top-10 highest-paid kickers in the league. They’re not interested in finding someone else.
Gano has brought a level of stability to a position that desperately needed it after John Kasay left in 2010. He has made 92 of his 109 field-goal attempts in his 3 1/2 year career with Carolina, and he’s been one of the most reliable kickers on kickoff in the league.
Last year the NFL moved the PAT from a 20-yard chip shot to 33 yards. The effort was to make the extra point more competitive, and it worked for the league.
Kickers made 94.2 percent of their PATs, which was the lowest in league history since at least 1979. In 2014 with the shorter kick, kickers were 99.3 percent successful.
Gano finished above the league average at 94.9 percent, missing two kicks wide left and having another blocked out of 59 attempts.
“I feel like last year I did a really good job with it,” Gano said. “It’s going to make the really good kickers look even better because you’ll have the guys with a high percentage of those makes. Especially the guys who kick outdoors or in windy stadiums, it’s going to make those guys more valuable.
“No one wants to make their job harder. At the same time I think it’s made me a better kicker.”
This year the Panthers didn’t even bring in an additional kicker to reduce the workload on Gano. He’s made all six of his field-goal attempts in the preseason after making 30 of 36 tries last season (two misses and four blocked).
In last week’s win against the Titans, the Panthers used punter Kasey Redfern on kickoffs so the Wofford alum could get his talents on tape for both the Panthers and other teams. The directive for Redfern was clear: kick it high and stick it just in front of the goal line to force the Titans to return the kick.
Through two exhibitions, the Panthers have kicked three touchbacks in 11 kickoffs. That’s not an accident.
“In the preseason you want to see what you’ve got. You don’t want to go into Week 1 not knowing what you have,” special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey said. “When we go up to Denver Week 1, we’ve got to know legitimately who can go down and cover kicks and who can’t. That’s what the preseason’s for. After that you make your assessments.”
The NFL changed the touchback rule this offseason. This season teams will get the ball at the 25 instead of the 20, and some teams have tried to kick it short of the goal line to stop the returner before he reaches the 25. The Titans were twice successful in doing it against the Panthers.
Different coaches will have different philosophies, but it seems Carolina isn’t too interested in what are known as “mortar” kicks - yet.
“It seems to be the rage now that everybody is going to try to lob that ball up there and see what happens,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “It’ll be interesting to see how we adapt to it as a football team because we saw it happen.”
Gano was tied for the NFL lead last year with 69 touchbacks. He also has the best touchback percentage (74.2) of all kickers since the 2013 season.
It’s a statistic Gano has long been proud of, but he knows this game and he’s willing to be flexible.
“Whatever they want me to do, I’ll do,” Gano said. “I can’t talk strategy, but we’ve got it all in our bag of tricks. I’ll be prepared for anything.”