Graham Gano, Brad Nortman give Panthers threats in kicking game

jjones@charlotteobserver.comJanuary 3, 2014 

Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano couldn’t believe punter Brad Nortman hadn’t been selected as NFC Special Teams Player of the Week after a strong Week 16 performance against the New Orleans Saints.

Gano sat at his locker two weeks ago and sent two tweets to his Twitter account showing his dismay for the perceived slight. He composed a few more but deleted them before hitting send.

This week, he had some congratulatory tweets to send.

Brad Nortman was named NFC Special Teams Player of the Month after consistently strong showings in Carolina’s five games in December, and this week in the locker room, both he and Gano were all smiles.

The two kicking specialists have enjoyed the best statistical season for a kicking duo in the franchise’s history. Nortman, a second-year punter out of Wisconsin, set a franchise record in gross average punting and net yards, and Gano recorded the highest touchback percentage of any kicker in the NFL since 1994.

“They’ve been exceptional,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “Not allowing a team to return a ball is big, and I think defensively that helps you as well. It kind of gets the hidden yardage thing going for you, and that’s probably the biggest thing. If you go back and look at not just this month but all year, the consistency with the kickoffs, the extra points and field goals and then you turn around and the consistency with the punting, flipping the field, not allowing big returns is big.”

When the Panthers hired assistant special teams coach Bruce Dehaven in the offseason, Dehaven had a prediction. He told Nortman and long snapper J.J. Jansen the best punter would not lead the NFL in gross punting average this season.

“We kind of laughed but it’s very true,” Jansen said. “There’s something great about watching a guy hit it a million miles, and then there’s something very deflating about watching the ball come back at you with as many great returners as there are.”

Nortman finished the regular season ranked fourth in the league in both gross average and net average punting. He averaged 47.6 yards per punt and a net of 41.6 yards, both of which are team records for a single season. The Panthers did not allow a punt to be returned for a touchdown this season.

By his own admission, Nortman’s best two punts of the season came at home against New Orleans. Nortman had a 41-yarder in the third quarter that was downed at the Saints’ 2 during a strong rain. In the fourth quarter he hit a 57-yarder to the 3.

“I’m feeling really confident,” Nortman said. “Every time I go out there I feel I can be a weapon for this team, and I don’t get many chances thank goodness because the offense is so good. But any time I am called upon I feel confident I can go out there and make a difference.”

Jansen said he’s seen great improvement in Nortman this season, and not just statistically. Nortman increased his gross average by 4.6 yards per punt and his net by 5.1 yards per punt this season, but his football acumen has also improved.

Nortman has the ability to kick a 70-plus-yard punt, but at Tampa Bay in Week 8, the situation called for a quick short punt with the Buccaneers rushing 10 and the Panthers having only eight in protection. Nortman got the ball off his foot quickly and punted it 37 yards out of bounds to the Bucs’ 16.

“He kicks it out of bounds and there are no worries, no stress, defense goes on the field and 3-and-out we get the ball back,” Jansen said. “Understanding game situations limits returns and gets the team numbers better.”

Gano entered the season, his first full one with Carolina, with a goal of 70 percent touchbacks on his kickoffs. He blasted that with a 79.7 percent rate, which is the highest since 1994 according to STATS LLC.

“Some of them go out of the end zone but a lot are downed in the end zone, and I think that has a lot to say about our kickoff coverage teams,” Gano said. “The returners wouldn’t take knees if they thought they could get it past the 20 so I think that it definitely a compliment to the guys that run down the field and we take a lot of pride in it.”

Along with his 63 touchbacks this season, Gano went 42-for-42 on extra points and 24-of-27 on field goals, making all six of his attempts from 50 yards and out.

When the Panthers get to the opponent’s 40, they’re already in Gano’s range. And when they can’t get there, they have Nortman’s leg to pin the opposing offense deep its own territory.

“To be in a situation where your kickers can take over the game,” Jansen said, “sometimes that can go unnoticed, but not to this team.”

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

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