A day after two more special teams failings, Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he hasn’t lost confidence in special teams coordinator Richard Rodgers.
The Panthers had two punts blocked and returned for touchdowns in the first half of Sunday’s 31-13 loss to Minnesota, a dubious distinction that hadn’t happened in the NFL in a quarter-century.
But Rivera, the Panthers’ fourth-year coach, expressed confidence in Rodgers, Rivera’s teammate at Cal who had never held an NFL coaching job until Rivera hired him in 2012.
Asked Monday if he still had faith in Rodgers, Rivera said: “Yeah, I do. Why wouldn’t I? I look at what happened, and it’s also part of execution.”
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The Panthers’ special teams have languished for much of the season but never as glaringly as during the loss to the Vikings. The blocked punts and ensuing returns put the Panthers in a 21-3 hole midway through the second quarter.
The Panthers (3-8-1) haven’t won since Oct. 5 against Chicago. Their seven-game winless stretch is tied for the third longest in team history.
Rivera indicated there would be no immediate staff changes but was noncommittal on whether there could be a shakeup after the season.
“Everything’s evaluated. I get evaluated. Players get evaluated. Coaches get evaluated,” Rivera said. “What we do gets evaluated.”
Rodgers came to Carolina as a special teams assistant after 23 years as a college coach. He took over as coordinator when Rivera fired Brian Murphy with seven games left in the 2012 season.
Rivera was asked whether his friendship with Rodgers is strained when the special teams play poorly.
“We’re talking about two plays in a game. I get that,” Rivera said. “And you could say the same thing about what happens when you give up a sack. You could say the same thing about what happens when you miss a tackle. The only problem is, unfortunately, it gets magnified.”
The Panthers became the fifth team in NFL history – and first since 1990 – to have two blocked punts returned for touchdowns in a game.
Rivera repeated Monday the blocks were the result of individual breakdowns rather than any systematic failures.
The first blocked punt came when the Vikings ran a stunt up the middle and two players came free. Thomas DeCoud, set a couple yards behind the line as the “personal protector,” was sliding to his left to block Adam Thielen.
But when Andrew Sendejo broke through the interior gap vacated by the Panthers’ Jason Williams, DeCoud took him, and Thielen had a clear path to punter Brad Nortman. Thielen smothered the punt, picked up the ball and ran 30 yards for the score.
“They’d shown a look on film where (Sendejo) and (Thielen) were looping a lot, starting on one side of the ball and looping to the other. So I made the call based on the formation, and then when they started to move, I was tracking my guy (Thielen),” DeCoud said. “Two guys came free, so I basically had to pick my poison.”
On Nortman’s next punt, Vikings linebacker Jasper Brinkley beat Ben Jacobs on the edge to get the block. Everson Griffen scooped it and scored on a 43-yard return. Jacobs took responsibility for the block after the game.
The Panthers have now given up four touchdowns on special teams this season. In addition to the two Sunday, Carolina allowed Pittsburgh to score on a fumbled punt by Philly Brown in Week 3, and let Philadelphia’s Darren Sproles split the coverage for a 65-yard punt return last month.
“I think we have definitely hurt the team this year,” said Colin Jones, a regular on special teams. “Last year you could say we helped win four or so games. And I feel like this year we haven’t played well as a whole on several occasions, which has cost us the football game.”
Graham Gano missed two field goals in the final minutes of a 19-17 loss to Atlanta on Nov. 16. Cincinnati’s Adam “Pacman” Jones had a 97-yard kickoff return to set up a game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter of the Panthers’ 37-all tie on Oct. 12 – the game that started Carolina’s seven-game winless streak.
Gano is tied for the league lead with a 77.8 touchback percentage. But the Panthers rank last in punt and kickoff coverage.
The return games have lacked a game-breaking threat since Ted Ginn left in free agency during the offseason.
But Jones, a four-phase special teams player, doesn’t think the schemes are the problem. Jones said Rodgers and special teams assistant Bruce DeHaven, who has 28 years of NFL experience, have players well prepared.
“I feel like we’re put in a position to succeed by what we’re given during the week,” Jones said. “And then it’s on our shoulders to execute once it happens. One of the punts that was blocked, we saw that same look 13 times during the course of practice.
“There comes a time where you as players have to take responsibility for doing what you’re paid to do, and that’s making plays or protecting.”