When kicker Graham Gano’s job was threatened in the offseason, he responded the way all of us would like to think we would.
Rather than bemoaning his fate when the Carolina Panthers used a draft choice on a kicker for the first time in April, Gano accepted the challenge. What has resulted is the best NFL season of his career, with Gano missing only one field goal through the Panthers’ first 11 games and performing as well as any kicker in the NFL.
After three more field goals Sunday against the New York Jets, Gano is 23-for-24 for the season. That success rate of 95.8 percent is easily his career best and is tied for No. 1 in the NFL for all kickers with 10 or more field-goal attempts. Ironically, Kansas City’s Harrison Butker – who Gano edged for the starting job in the preseason -- has also gone 23-for-24.
“It’s fun,” Gano said after the Jets’ game.
And though he was referring to his 45-yard kick to seal the game with less than a minute to go – a kick he made in the same stadium going the same way as a game-winner he hit against the New York Giants in 2015 - he may as well have been talking about the whole 2017 season. Gano’s ascent has corresponded to what has been a great special-teams season for the Panthers in general – Carolina is 8-3 and special-teams play has directly impacted a number of those victories.
Beating New England
Gano’s biggest kick this season came on the final play at New England, where his 48-yarder beat the reigning Super Bowl champs 33-30. It was the polar opposite of Gano’s first-game miss against Denver in 2016, when his 50-yarder in the high altitude of Denver sailed wide left and sent the Panthers spiraling to a last-second loss against another defending Super Bowl champion.
Special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey said part of Gano’s success this season stems from the fact he never had a big miss early like last season.
“Sometimes it’s just how you start,” McGaughey said. “Last year he (Gano) started off and missed that one early (against Denver). ...Sometimes it gets in your head a little bit.”
A career-worst 2016
Gano ended up missing eight field goals in 2016 – a career-worst performance for him as a Panther -- including three in the season finale against Tampa Bay. He was playing with a broken bone in his plant foot by then, but he was still kicking and the Panthers weren’t happy with the performance.
Coach Ron Rivera said after that Tampa Bay game the team would bring in competition in the offseason for Gano, and that arrived in the form of Butker. The Panthers chose the former Georgia Tech kicker in the seventh round of the 2017 NFL draft, and many fans thought Gano’s days were numbered.
“But I think over the summer he re-committed himself to some different technique things,” McGaughey said of Gano. “And he came back in camp ready to rock. ...Going against Harrison -- I think that was one of the best things that could have happened to him.”
Gano did not give Butker the cold shoulder – the two bonded during training camp and remain friends.
“Graham treated Harrison like he was a mentor,” Panthers punter Michael Palardy told me once. “He encouraged him all the time. It was amazing to see.”
The Panthers actually tried to keep both kickers, with Gano as the starter. But Kansas City plucked Butker off the Panthers’ practice squad in September. Both men have had Pro Bowl-type seasons since then. Entering Sunday’s game at New Orleans, Gano’s only miss the entire season came from 55 yards against Detroit.
As usual, Gano’s cannon leg means he is among the NFL leaders in touchbacks on kickoffs, too. The only hiccup has been extra points – Gano has missed two of them, including one last week.
“I hit the ball really, really well,” Gano said of that miss, “but just not where I wanted to hit it. It’s one of those things – it’s frustrating, but those things happen in the course of a season.”
The Kasay comparison
Gano is not superstitious like many kickers and strives to not be flaky, either. He yearns for consistency and does the same things each week, including an elaborate initialing of his knuckles every Sunday with family members’ names and the number 143 to stand for “I love you.” He has done that since his college days at Florida State.
To some Panthers fans, Gano will never surpass the legend of John Kasay – the team’s all-time leading scorer. But while Kasay made 81.9 percent of his field-goal attempts, Gano is close behind at 81.3. Kasay also never had a season in which he made more than 91 percent of his kicks, as Gano is on track to do.
I’m not saying Gano has been a better kicker during his career than Kasay.
What I am saying is that Gano is on track to have the best season that any Panthers placekicker has ever had, bar none. And in a league where so many games are decided by field goals, that’s huge.
Gano’s Great Start
Carolina’s veteran kicker is having the best season of his career, as evidenced by these three statistics comparing all NFL kickers in 2017 with 10 or more attempts in the category.
FG pct. under 50 yards: 100 (23-for-23, tied for first)
Overall FG pct: 95.8 (23-for-24, tied for first in NFL with former Panther Harrison Butker)
Touchback pct: 84.5 (First in NFL)