Bryan Strickland Senior Writer
CHARLOTTE, NC – On a punt return late in the fourth quarter of the Panthers’ season finale at New Orleans, Armanti Edwards looked like he would score his first NFL touchdown – only to have New Orleans Saints punter Thomas Morstead push him out of bounds 12 yards short of the goal line.
Such was the story of special teams for the Panthers in 2012. The units finished strong but still have work to do heading into 2013.
Before Richard Rodgers was promoted from special teams assistant to coordinator in November, the Panthers ranked 31st in punt return average and 25th in opponents’ average starting position after kickoffs. Over the final seven games, Rodgers helped Carolina ascend to 14th in punt return average and 11th in opponents’ average starting position after kickoffs.
On the other hand, with Kealoha Pilares on injured reserve, the Panthers remained toward the bottom of the pack in kickoff return average and average starting position after fielding kickoffs.
“We finished the season well,” Rodgers said. “You can always improve, but as a group – punt, kickoff, kickoff return, punt return – we stepped it up. Guys were focused at the end, and we developed a pretty good chemistry.”
Rodgers had something to do with that. The special teams captain for the California team that beat Stanford in 1982 with a miraculous kickoff return simply called “The Play,” got the best out of his personnel and unearthed some new pieces for the future.
“Jordan Senn was the captain, and everybody kind of feeds off him,” Rodgers said. “That’s where the chemistry starts, with catalysts like him, Colin Jones, Jason Phillips, Mike Tolbert, Haruki Nakamura. Those guys make your special teams special because of their willingness to play with a sense of urgency, to make it important all the time in practice and performing in games.
“Those guys started it, and as the season went on we had to replace guys because of injuries. We brought in guys like Armond Smith, Mario Addison, Anderson Russell, James Dockery - who were all impact guys and helped the chemistry we were building.”
The kicking game starts with the kickers, and they put in their best work at the end of the season. Rookie punter Brad Nortman averaged 44 or more yards in four of his last five games and generated a season-best 48.3-yard net average in Week 16. Kicker Graham Gano, signed for the final six games, nailed 9-of-11 field goals, and his 3.3 touchbacks per game would have added up to a top-five total over the course of an entire season.
The common bond between the kickers was long snapper J.J. Jansen, who enjoyed another spotless season.
“You have to start with a good foundation. J.J., Brad and Graham are a pretty good foundation,” Rodgers said. “You build off those guys, and their attitude and sense of urgency spread throughout the rest of the guys.
“J.J. is very knowledgeable about the game. You can take that for granted, because it’s not important until it’s important – until it goes bad. But with him and the operation time we had for both field goals and punts, he’s the start of it.”
In the return game, Edwards’ final opportunity of the season reminded Rodgers of Joe Adams, a promising prospect who had his ups and downs as a rookie.
After Adams was inactive for six games following some early-season turnover troubles, he returned his final six punts of the year for 10 or more yards each.
“Sitting down helped him, because he went to work on the basics and he worked himself up to averaging 11 or so yards a return,” Rodgers said. “At the beginning of the season, the game was big. Everyone sees Joe as a very dynamic player, and as a punt returner, you have to have a little bit of swagger. But you also have to understand the game.
“It was kind of the same for Armanti Edwards last year – a little tentative – and then the last punt return he had was a good example of how much he has grown up. Joe, after having had a year of experience, hopefully, can do the same thing.”
That’s the hope for all of the Panthers’ special teams units going forward.
“These are professional football players. I admire them because of that - that they’re doing something elite,” Rodgers said. “I try to find out what they’re good at and give them the opportunity to be good at that. To me it’s about finding the positive and expanding on it and using it.”