You’d be hard press to find a kicking situation with as controversial as it is in Carolina with a kicker who is 15/16 on the season, but here we are again. The Panthers are working out field goal kickers tomorrow because Graham Gano is “working thru something” according to Ian Rapaport. What Gano is “working thru” isn’t entirely clear, however, and has left us wondering is this because of injury or intrigue? The Panthers haven’t shown much faith in Gano from outside of 50-yards and he has clearly been frustrated by the lack of confidence the Ron Rivera has had in him this season.
Gano, who appeared on Sunday’s injury report as questionable with a knee injury, has been on fans shit-list ever since he missed a 44-yard field goal in the Super Bowl. He didn’t earn any grace the following year when he missed another game-winning field goal in the season opener which was a rematch of Super Bowl 50 between the Panthers and Broncos. Gano struggled throughout the 2016 season, and when Carolina drafted Harrison Butker in the 7th round this year, most suspected Gano’s days were numbered. Gano, however, started out with an early lead in training camp battle, but stumbled in the preseason just as Butker was gaining momentum. The contest was close and then turned into a bizarre moment when Carolina retained both Gano and Butker on the 53-man roster to start the season. GM Marty Hurney justified the decision by floating trade rumors that there was interest in both Gano and Butker from other teams.
Carolina ended the saga and their own misdirection by retaining Gano and releasing Butker who found himself snatched off the practice squad the Kansas City Chiefs. Fans like to cite Butker’s success in KC, but Gano has been near perfect for the Panthers this season, missing only one field-goal on the season.
So why is Carolina working out a field-goal kicker in lieu of Gano’s success this season and his eagerness to prove himself? The probable answer is that he is “working thru” some sort of minor knee injury, but this kicking storyline wouldn’t be complete in Carolina without a little continued intrigue.
Gano has not only regained a good bit of confidence this season, he’s kicking with a chip on his shoulder. Fans were rightfully tough on him, but he must deal with that simply by nature of his position. His struggles in 2015 and 2016, however, seemed to be wearing thin with the Panthers coaching staff who wasn’t handling him with kid gloves any longer. Rivera described the kicking competition between Gano and Butker in training camp as even. Retaining two field-goal kickers and while supposedly entertaining trades for both was bizarre, and that wasn’t lost on Gano who commented as the season opened, “I've never been on the 53 with two kickers, but I'm excited to be here."
Interestingly, Carolina has opted against using Gano on three occasions this season where they were in need of points and within field-goal range. The first instance was against the Saints where Carolina desperately needed to score but opted to punt from the Saints 35-yd line. The following week, Carolina had an opportunity to get 3-points in the final seconds of the second quarter against the Eagles, but a mysterious crosswind was too of a concern for Rivera to send Gano out. Gano was visibly frustrated. And this past week in Chicago, Rivera opted to punt from the Bears 38-yard line as the Panthers grasped for any signs of offensive hope. Gano signaled his frustration by walking up to the sideline and holding out his arms indicating he was ready to give the 56-yarder a shot. As the Panthers punted, Gano stood with his hands on his hips and helmet on and one could see that he wasn’t happy about the decision.
After losing in such an embarrassing fashion to a team that completed only 4 passes and failed to score an offensive touchdown, Panthers fans have aimed their cross-hairs at everyone in the organization, including Ron Rivera. As fans continue to vent about Mike Shula’s play-calling or Carolina’s offensive ineptitude, Rivera has tried to marginalize the recent loss to the Bears as a fluke determined by 3-plays that the Bears made, and the Panthers didn’t. It’s been a tough sale and few are buying it at this moment. Dissent among the players, who Rivera hasn’t far more willing to throw under the bus was named Coach of the Year in 2015, clearly isn’t something that this staff is going to welcome and maybe from the looks of it tolerate.
Gano’s knee may be hurting, but Rivera’s ego after Sunday is too. Since Carolina has been hesitant to call Gano’s number this season when he has been a go, one has to wonder if their concern he wouldn’t be able to go this Sunday against the Buccaneers is the only reason they are working out other kickers this week.
By Tony Dunn
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