If Super Bowl 50 comes down to Graham Gano’s foot, he will not only be ready for the moment, he will welcome it.
“That’s kind of why I started playing football,” said Gano, the Carolina Panthers’ kicker. “I liked the rush, the opportunity to win the game with one play. Those are the moments you dream of and prepare for. I hope it happens.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera would probably prefer that his team has the game tucked away before any kind of potential game-winning field goal is necessary Sunday against the Denver Broncos in Santa Clara, Calif.
But if it’s not, and should it come down to Gano, Rivera will be as comfortable as any coach can be in that situation.
“I have a tremendous amount of comfort in him; that’s our guy,” said Rivera. “That’s who we have out there and I believe he can do it. Hopefully it doesn’t have to come down to that; I would much rather be a little more comfortable, but if it is, we will put it on his foot and let him win it for us.”
That kind of pressure – although ramped up considerably for the Super Bowl – is the way life is for kickers, from high school through the NFL.
That’s kind of why I started playing football. I liked the rush, the opportunity to win the game with one play. Those are the moments you dream of and prepare for.
“It’s kind of funny, but I’m just viewing this as any other game,” said Gano. “I’ve never been in a Super Bowl, but the NFC Championship Game (last week) felt like it. That was a pretty neat atmosphere, but it’s just football.”
Gano, who signed with the Panthers in 2012, has been generally reliable this season, making 33 of 39 field goals. He’s been clutch, hitting a 43-yarder as time expired to beat the New York Giants 38-35. He also made a 42-yarder against the Indianapolis Colts to tie the game during overtime, before connecting from 52 yards to win it 29-26.
Earlier in the Colts game, Gano missed an extra point, one of three he has missed this season. Point-after kicks have been moved back to the 15-yard line after an off-season rule change, making the new PAT now the same distance as a 33-yard field goal – certainly not a sure thing.
One of Gano’s extra-point kicks was blocked by the New Orleans Saints’ Stephone Anthony, who returned it for the first 2-point defensive score since the league changed the rule.
“I wasn’t a fan of (the rule change) at first,” said Gano. “I don’t think anybody is a big fan of something that makes your job harder. But it makes guys who can do it more valuable, so I’m in favor of it now.”
Gano came to the Panthers from Washington in 2012. He was the country’s top kicker his senior season at Florida State, where he won the Lou Groza Award.
Rivera said he likes the new PAT rule, that it adds elements of unpredictability and strategy to the game.
“I was against it. I thought I didn’t like it, I thought it was going to change the game,” said Rivera. “I wasn’t sure it was necessary but now that I see how effective it has been, how it has made the game entertaining, how it did impact the playoffs this year.
“It is exactly what the league wanted. Everything now has a value. Back in the day it was automatic, no big deal; now it’s not. It also in some cases it puts you in the situation that you really truly do think about going for two (points) sometimes. I think that’s the beauty of what it has done for this league. After seeing it for the season, there is a lot of pluses to it.”
Gano has had five field goals blocked this season, but according to an Observer film study, two came when opponents appeared to anticipate the Panthers’ snap count.
Otherwise, Gano has been near perfect.
“We’ve fixed that, we’ve corrected the mistakes,” said Gano. “I’ve made 94 percent without the blocks, so I feel like it’s been a great year.”
59 Yards, Gano’s career long field goal (in 2011 for Washington)
After moving from his birthplace of Arbroath, Scotland (his parents met there while his father was stationed in the Navy), Gano grew up playing soccer in Pensacola, Fla. When he discovered there was no summer high school soccer program for him to participate in, he gave kicking on the football team a shot.
“I had to get used to kicking the ball over the bar, rather than under the bar, like I was used to in soccer,” said Gano, who was also one of Florida’s top sprinters in high school, winning state championships in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes. “I had to learn how to get elevation on the ball.”
Gano went on to Florida State, where he won the Lou Groza Award his senior season as the nation’s top kicker. Undrafted, he signed with Washington in 2009, where he remained until the Panthers obtained him in 2012.
When Gano first came into the league, he got to know some of the NFL’s more experienced kickers, like the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Jeff Reed, who kicked for East Mecklenburg High and North Carolina. Since he’s been in Charlotte, Gano has also struck up a friendship with former Panthers kicker John Kasay, who is now the athletics director at Charlotte Christian. He also said he will talk with the New England Patriots’ Stephen Gostkowski, who has kicked in the Super Bowl three times.
“It’s funny, nobody knows what we go through,” said Gano. “People think we just go out and make kicks, because it looks so easy. But a lot goes into it before you kick the ball. So, yeah, it’s a fraternity.”
Kasay and Reed also have Super Bowl experience.
Reed played on two championship teams, kicking two field goals in the 2008 Super Bowl against the Arizona Cardinals. He didn’t have a field-goal attempt in 2005 against the Seattle Seahawks.
“What I most remember about the Seahawks game,” said Reed, “is that I had the opening kickoff. Talk about flashes! I’ve never seen more people taking pictures in my life.”
But Reed said that as long as Gano doesn’t change anything in how he prepares, the Super Bowl shouldn’t be any different.
“Once you get past the media day, it’s just another week of preparation,” he said. “Sure, everything is magnified from the outside, but if you stay in your routine, you’ll be fine.”
Kasay kicked a 50-yard field goal against the New England Patriots in the 2005 game. But he is most remembered for a kickoff that went out of bounds after the Panthers had tied the game (helped by a Kasay extra point) with one minute, 8 seconds left, allowing the Patriots to start a final, game-winning drive on the 40.
“You can’t worry about that, because sometimes those things happen, you can have plays like that,” Gano said. “You can’t blame it on one play. It’s all part of the game.”