In the quiet of the Carolina Panthers’ locker room Sunday afternoon, kicker Graham Gano sat in a corner, his arms crossed.
Gano, one of the league’s most reliable kickers, had two chances in the final 84 seconds to give Carolina a victory against the Atlanta Falcons in a game the Panthers desperately needed to rekindle a season on the verge of flaming out.
Both times – first from 46 yards with 1 minute, 26 seconds remaining and then from 63 yards as time expired – Gano failed to deliver, and the Panthers were left with a 19-17 loss they nearly avoided.
Until Sunday, Gano had made 17 of 19 field goal attempts, justifying the four-year, $12.4 million deal the Panthers gave him during the offseason, the second-biggest expenditure behind Greg Hardy’s one-year, $13.2-million contract.
It’s why coach Ron Rivera went conservative in the final two minutes prior to Gano’s first miss, running the ball on third-and-5 rather than push for one more first down, giving Gano a chance to cap what would have been a dramatic comeback victory.
As reporters gathered around Gano, a Panthers official asked to give the kicker time to shower before answering questions. Gano didn’t want to wait.
“I just missed the kick,” Gano said of his 46-yard attempt that missed wide left by the approximate length of a football.
“It’s painful. I’ve got to make the kick. That’s why I’m the placekicker here. I obviously wish I could have it back, but I’ve got to put it through the uprights.
“It’s just a miss.”
Gano refused to blame mechanics or any other factor on just his second missed field goal at Bank of America Stadium in two-plus seasons.
“I think the guys did a good job. It’s on me. I wish I could have it back,” Gano said.
The 46-yard miss sucked the excitement out of the stadium after the Panthers’ sudden comeback from a 16-3 deficit early in the fourth quarter. While the Carolina defense forced a final Falcons’ punt, Gano stood on the sideline by himself.
Suddenly, Gano had another opportunity. The Panthers moved 39 yards in three plays, using just 21 seconds. When receiver Kelvin Benjamin lateraled to Greg Olsen, who skipped out of bounds with one second remaining, Gano and the kicking team rushed back on the field.
A 63-yard field goal would have been just a yard shy of Matt Prater’s league-record kick.
‘We were like ‘This is cool.’ We were excited to get that opportunity,” long snapper J.J. Jansen said.
“I asked him before that (final) kick, ‘What’s your range?’ He said, ‘I’ll hit it from any distance.’ He hit a good ball. It just got blocked.”
Atlanta’s Ra’Shede Hageman got a hand on Gano’s kick, killing it immediately. Instead of a potential game-winner, Gano’s kick fell nearly 30 yards short of the back line.
Gano said he didn’t try to kick the ball lower to get more distance.
“I don’t think there’s a higher probability (of a block). I’ve been blessed with a strong leg so I didn’t have to change anything. I hit it well,” Gano said.
For 15 minutes, Gano answered questions as reporters kept asking him to explain what happened. His answers never changed.
“I just have to pull through and make that kick. No excuses,” Gano said. “I’m not going to sit here and explain why I missed the kick. My job is to put it through the uprights and I didn’t do it there but I will when I get another opportunity.
“I feel like I’ve made a lot of kicks here and I’m going to continue to make a lot of kicks. It’s just a bump in the road. It’s unfortunate that it happened right now. It’s a big game. Everybody knows that. I’ll keep getting better.
“It’s definitely frustrating. I’m waiting for the opportunity to redeem myself. At this level you have to want that.”