What exactly did Damiere Byrd and the special-teams unit do for the Carolina Panthers on Sunday?
“Saved us,” said coach Ron Rivera, blunt after a narrow 22-19 victory against Tampa Bay that clinched a playoff spot.
Byrd received a kickoff in the second quarter and, aided in part by blocking from “wedge” tandem Bryan Cox Jr. and Chris Manhertz, side-skipped a would-be tackler and danced around a downfield block from Fozzy Whittaker. Then he torched the Buccaneers’ attempts at containment for the franchise-record 103-yard touchdown.
It was the first kick-return touchdown for Carolina since 2011.
But it was also the only touchdown the team managed to score until quarterback Cam Newton scooped up his own fumbled snap and carried it 2 yards into the end zone with 35 seconds left to play.
That lone offensive touchdown was padded by three field goals from Graham Gano, one of which occurred after punter (and former quarterback at preps powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas in Florida) Michael Palardy pulled a punt to throw.
Palardy had two progressions on his fake-punt play: The first was tight end Ed Dickson and the second was safety/nickel Colin Jones.
Jones, he thought, was covered. What he didn’t see was that Dickson was, too, so he threw a floating spiral up for Dickson as safety Josh Robinson draped over the tight end from behind and was called for pass interference – first down, Carolina.
“Oh, we’ve been begging to run that play all season,” said Dickson. “It’s just so that teams know it’s in the bag, so they’ll play honest. ...
“I give a lot of credit to Mike, for throwing the ball up (high). If you don’t throw that ball up, we don’t get the penalty and it’s a negative play.”
Byrd took a tough hit while returning the kick that opened the second half, and injured his left knee. He was unable to return to the game, which put a stitch in what otherwise would have been a massive sigh of relief. With the Panthers right on the brink of a playoff run, Byrd’s big-play ability both on special teams and as a vertical threat are much needed.
His status is still unknown.
“He’s a playmaker on this team and we can’t go too far without him,” said teammate and locker-neighbor Russell Shepard (Byrd was unavailable following the game while undergoing tests). “We’re a better football team when No. 18 is on the field.”
Plus, they just adore having him around. The entire locker room – and, players say, people throughout the organization – has really been rooting for Byrd’s come-up as an undrafted free agent out of South Carolina who tried like heck for the last three years to even latch onto the practice squad with a “put me anywhere, coach” mentality.
His effort, development and ability got him opportunity on the 2017 roster, but Byrd went on injured reserve right as he was getting into a rhythm in Week 4. Then, upon his return, he went from sitting on the sideline to the subject of the viral “Tushdown” last week (and the Newton nickname “Little Cheeks”) on his way to three touchdowns in two games. Teammates have also adopted his Napoleon-Dynamite-esque wing-flapping touchdown celebration, and from rookies to veterans, they echo their pride in his journey.
“He’s the ultimate testament to ‘hard work pays off.’ Good things happen to good people in due time,” said Shepard. “I mean, words can’t describe how happy people are, not just on this team but in this organization, for his success. When you have other people happy for you, that says a lot about you. I just think he is the ultimate testament to, ‘work your butt off and eventually things will fall into place.’ And just keep smiling. Keep a smile on your face and enjoy the process, enjoy the run. And when your time comes, take advantage of it.”
The Panthers entered Sunday’s game after a seven-week span in which they boasted a red-zone touchdown percentage of 70 and looked both explosive and cohesive on offense.
But despite barely squeaking past a beat-up Buccaneers defense 22-19 to clinch a playoff berth, Carolina’s offense went nearly the whole game without finding the end zone.
Through the first three quarters, the Panthers offense was 0-3 in the red zone and stumbled to just 78 yards at halftime, the lowest in a half in the Newton era.
Carolina’s secondary also struggled against a Tampa Bay receiving corps that, despite missing DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard to injury, gashed the Panthers for multiple chunk gains that featured missed tackles, pass-interference flags aplenty and sloppy coverage. By the end of the third quarter, Tampa had five plays of 25 yards or longer, and a 16-15 lead (that climbed to 19-15 early in the fourth quarter).
Oh, and don’t forget the bugling bungle in a cacophony of errors: On a long third down, Tampa was called for an end-zone hold that would have been a safety in favor of the Panthers.
But defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, normally a stalwart on the defensive line, committed a personal foul on center Joe Hawley and the penalties offset, costing the Panthers a safety and giving Tampa another third-down shot.
The Buccaneers converted with a 30-yard catch by Mike Evans.
Second-year cornerback James Bradberry was then called for pass interference twice on the sustained drive. But the Panthers’ defense held, courtesy of a second-down sack by Daryl Worley and a third-down stop by linebacker Luke Kuechly, and Tampa Bay missed a long field goal.
Newton marched the team back downfield and scored.
But Rivera agreed after the win: Special teams kept Carolina in a game it at first didn’t look like it even wanted to win. The Panthers converted only four third downs and had 255 yards of offense.
“There were some things that we didn’t do very well as an offense or defense until the very end when we had to,” said Rivera. “That’s one of the things that I’m at least pleased with.
“When we needed to make a stop, we needed to knock them back, we did. Then we had to drive the ball all the way down (and) we did. That’s huge. We gave ourselves the chance to win the game.”