Andy Lee set the bar high for himself.
It took the Carolina Panthers’ newest addition exactly one game to rewrite the team’s punting record book.
Lee boomed a franchise-record 76-yard punt in the third quarter last week at Denver and finished with a gross average of 63 yards, which broke another record.
And while the thinner air in Denver didn’t hurt, Lee has had longer kicks much closer to sea level.
“That’s kind of Andy. That’s been him everywhere he’s been – the Andy Lee effect. He’s a big-ball hitter,” Panthers special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey said. “He has the ability to flip the field, obviously. You saw what he did the other day. We’ve just got to be able to go down and cover it.”
It took the Panthers five tries – and cost them a fourth-round draft pick – but they look like they have their man for fourth-and-long.
“I thought Andy was phenomenal,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “It most certainly initially justifies why we went out and got him. I think he did things we were looking for in a veteran punter.”
The Panthers ran through punters at a comical clip after losing Brad Nortman to Jacksonville in free agency.
They had a left-footer (Michael Palardy), a former CFL standout (Swayze Waters), a veteran coming off surgery (Mike Scifres) and an ex-Wofford punter (Kasey Redfern).
What they didn’t have was anyone who could consistently hit it deep.
Enter Lee, who arrived Aug. 30 in a trade with Cleveland.
It was the second trade in as many years for Lee, 34, who spent his first 11 seasons in San Francisco. Lee, a South Carolina native, welcomed the move to Charlotte, where his family already owned a house where they lived during the offseason.
It’s been a tough couple of years for Lee and his wife, Rachel, whose daughter, Madelyn, died in 2015 eight days after she’d been born prematurely. Lee said being able to live and work in the same city has been a “blessing,” despite the trades that were a part of it.
“The whole process led me to here,” he said.
And last week it took him to Denver, where Lee’s first two punts sailed 59 and 56 yards but bounced into the end zone for touchbacks.
The 6-1, 185-pound Lee crushed his third punt, which traveled the entire 76 yards in the air and sent Broncos returner Jordan Norwood retreating to the Denver 13 to retrieve it.
Panthers’ special teams regular Joe Webb had to cover a lot of ground on Lee’s punt.
“It felt like I was running forever,” Webb said. “You’re running down the field and looking at the returner and he started backing up, backing up. So you know it’s bombs away.”
Lee said he knew he’d gotten all of it.
“When I hit it, I was like, ‘OK, that was good,’” he said. “But you do your job, you try to move on to the next kick. It was awesome. It was cool. But it’s in the past now.”
More to come
The punt broke Todd Sauerbrun’s Panthers mark by 3 yards, but it wasn’t the longest of Lee’s career. He had an 81-yarder at Tampa Bay as a rookie in 2004, and an 82-yarder against New England in 2008 at the old Candlestick Park in San Francisco.
Both of those hit and rolled. The boomer at Denver was Lee’s longest in the air.
“I’ve always hit the ball pretty far. When I get a hold of them I can get it out there,” said Lee, who ranks sixth all-time among NFL punters in gross average (46.3 yards) and net (39.5).
Lee went to three Pro Bowls with the 49ers, but became expendable (and too expensive) after San Francisco drafted Clemson punter Bradley Pinion in the fifth round in 2015.
McGaughey was the Niners’ special teams coach at the time, but only worked with Lee for three days during a minicamp before the trade. Both McGaughey and Lee say they understand the move was business and not personal.
“My understanding was it was a money thing,” Lee said of the trade. “We have a great relationship here. I love playing for him and I think he’s a great coach. There’s no hard feelings. No matter what, I’m here now. It got me home. So whatever.”
McGaughey said given Lee’s leg strength, the Panthers’ coverage guys will have to be disciplined by running hard and staying in their lanes. But McGaughey said Lee also knows how to use the entire field.
“He’s mixed in a little bit of the direction with his distance, and it’s definitely helped him over the years,” McGaughey said.
And what does Lee do for an encore?
“I would say just go out and do my job,” he said. “I think people understand you’re not going to hit 76-yard punts all the time. It probably is going to happen once a year.”