Bryan Strickland Senior Writer
CHARLOTTE – Richard Rodgers’ playing days are well behind him, but he still competes on the football field just like did when he wore a helmet rather than a headset.
Sunday, Rodgers will have even more to do with the competitive product that the Panthers put on the field when he debuts as Carolina’s special teams coordinator.
“It’s a great opportunity for me, and I’m taking it as that,” Rodgers said. “We live vicariously through these players. We can’t go down and make plays for them. If I could, I would, but the bottom line is that they’ve got to execute and have the confidence to run down and make the plays.
“It’s our job to put them in position to do that.”
That was Brian Murphy’s job, with an assist from Rodgers, before Panthers head coach Ron Rivera relived Murphy of his duties Monday, citing production and philosophical differences.
Expect Rivera and Rodgers, who played together in college at California in the early 1980s, to be on the same page. Rodgers was special teams captain for three seasons and held that role when the Bears stunned Stanford with “The Play” three decades ago.
He got the nickname “Rock” at Cal, and it has stuck all these years.
“I respect ‘Rock’ a lot. He knows his stuff,” said Panthers safety
Rodgers’ charge is to lead the Panthers up from the bottom of the NFL rankings in numerous special teams categories.
Carolina is outside the top 20 in punt and kickoff return average. Just seven teams allow a better average starting position after kicking off than the Panthers, and just seven teams average a worse starting position after fielding kickoffs than the Panthers.
“It’s not that we have to do things differently. We have to execute,” Rodgers said. “We have a veteran group with some guys we brought in for special teams, and they’ve got to pick it up.
Rodgers’ means for reaching that end is simple to explain but not as simple to execute.
“I have a term that I haven’t even used with them: CIA,” he said. “Controlled. Intense. Aggressive. If we can play that way, we’ll be fine.
“You don’t want out of control, ever. You want to be under control and understand the situation. For the most part, we’ve got a good, solid foundation. That’s there, so then it’s how do you unleash it, let it go, without being too careless?”
Rodgers, who coached special teams on and off for nearly a quarter-century on the college level, needs time to get his approach up to full speed, but he knows he doesn’t have it. The Panthers need to improve immediately, and while they put all due time into special teams, it still is limited.
“You have to understand your role and know that there are certain time constraints you work in,” Rodgers said. “The offense and defense get most of the time, so we have to be crisp with our time. There’s a happy medium between teaching, learning and executing. The big test is on game day, and all those things have to come together for you to have success.”
With just one coach instead of two now focused on special teams, Rodgers is getting help from an array of assistants.
Running backs coach John Settle and assistant wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl have pitched in with the kickoff return unit this week. Assistant offensive line coach Ray Brown has helped with field goal protection, offensive quality control coach Sam Mills III worked with the “show team” that mimicked Tampa Bay’s dangerous punt block unit, and defensive assistant Bobby Babich has assisted in multiple areas.
“Everybody is pretty much pitching in and getting involved. I kind of get in the way on occasion as well,” Rivera said. “It’s a little different attitude. We’re trying to get things going.”
The Panthers, of course, aren’t likely to make a special teams splash Sunday that rivals “The Play,” but Rodgers is driven to have his units make just as big an impact on the game’s outcome.
“Hopefully,” Rodgers said, “I can help these players become better football players and help us win some games.”