No return: Panthers dump special teams coach

jperson@charlotteobserver.comNovember 13, 2012 

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Denver Broncos' Trindon Holliday (11) appears to flip the ball away prior to crossing into the endzone while returning a punt in the second quarter against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on November 11, 2012. The play was ruled a touchdown. Denver won 36-14. David T. Foster III-dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

DAVID T. FOSTER III — dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera fired special teams coordinator Brian Murphy on Monday, a day after the Panthers allowed a 76-yard punt return for a touchdown to Trindon Holliday in a 36-14 loss to Denver.

The loss dropped the Panthers to 2-7, the worst record in the NFC and tied for the third-worst in the league.

Citing productivity and philosophical differences he would not elaborate on, Rivera said the decision to fire Murphy was his, although he had the support of owner Jerry Richardson.

Rivera replaced Murphy with assistant special teams coach Richard Rodgers, Rivera’s teammate at Cal. Rodgers takes over a unit that ranks 31st among 32 teams in net punting and punt returns and is in the bottom half in kickoff coverage and kick returns.

“The biggest thing I look to see us improve in some of our production numbers,” Rivera said. “I told coach Rodgers what I wanted. I wanted things simplified. I wanted to come back to fundamental basics and that’s the direction we’re going to head right now.”

Murphy came under fire last season when the Panthers had one of worst special teams units in the league. Rivera brought in Rodgers to assist Murphy, but said he never considered firing Murphy in the offseason.

Instead, the Panthers released punter Jason Baker and signed several free agents to try to boost the special teams. Justin Medlock beat out veteran place-kicker Olindo Mare during the preseason.

Rivera said he informed Murphy of his decision at 7 a.m. Monday. Rivera told his players an hour later.

“I was surprised to hear it this morning. But the guy backing him up, he knows what he’s talking about,” rookie returner Joe Adams said. “It’s not really a drop-off because everything coach Murphy went through, coach Rodgers already knows. The guys have confidence in him.”

Holliday’s return, which gave the Broncos a 14-7 lead they did not relinquish, apparently was the breaking point for Murphy. Holliday, then with Houston, returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown against the Panthers in the preseason.

But the Panthers elected to kick to Holliday rather than kick away from him, the strategy the Panthers employed two weeks ago against Chicago’s Devin Hester.

“The idea was to kick it into the sides, between the numbers and sidelines. The one time he got the return the ball went back toward the middle,” Rivera said. “We try to execute. Sometimes it worked. There were a couple of things that came up in the play that could have changed it.”

Replays showed Holliday flipping the ball away before reaching the end zone, which should have been ruled a fumble and a touchback. The league office said Monday the play should have gone to replay review and overturned.

The Panthers rank first in kickoff return yardage allowed, but 24th in opponents’ starting field position – a disparity caused in part by the short kicks they used against Hester.

Besides the free agent acquisitions, the Panthers drafted a pair of specialists, taking Adams in the fourth round and punter Brad Nortman in the sixth. Nortman is last in the league with a 36-yard net average.

Rivera said injuries to Kenny Onatolu and Antwan Applewhite have hurt the punt coverage, forcing the Panthers to move Colin Jones from gunner to an inside spot.

“If you have the type of player, the one gunner, the special guy, then you can turn your punter loose. Say, ’Kick it as far as you want, as high as you want.’ That’s what we’re looking for,” Rivera said. “We brought some guys in for specific roles, but we’re still lacking that one guy. Special teams is important and we’ve got to find a way to be better at it.”

Adams is averaging 8.4 yards per punt return but has been inactive every game since fumbling twice in a loss to the Giants in Week 3. Captain Munnerlyn, who replaced Adams, is averaging an NFL-worst 4.5 yards a return, but has not fumbled.

Rivera said Adams would get another chance when he shows more consistency.

“I told him I’ve been watching him the last few weeks in practice and I want to see consistency every day,” Rivera said. “What I don’t want to see is two days of catching the ball and the third day of dropping it.”

Adams has been staying after practice fielding punts while waiting for another shot.

“It’s been hard,” Adams said. “Nobody likes to sit on the sideline and watch the team play, especially if you’re losing. It’s hard, but you just have to stick with it.”

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson

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