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Murphy polishing special teams

Posted Jun 6, 2012

CHARLOTTE - Anyone doubting the importance of special teams need only talk to a pair of safeties the Panthers acquired in free agency – a pair that came close to playing in the last Super Bowl rather than watching on TV.

In the NFC Championship, Reggie Smith could only watch as San Francisco 49ers teammate Kyle Williams' fumble on a punt return in overtime set up the New York Giants for a game-winning field goal.

And in the AFC Championship, Haruki Nakamura could only watch as Baltimore Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal in the final seconds that could have forced overtime but instead sent the New England Patriots to the Super Bowl.

"You win and lose games through special teams," Nakamura said. "In crucial moments especially, it's very important."

The Panthers endured their share of struggles on special teams last season, but Nakamura, Smith and a host of others have arrived to help make sure the Panthers no longer shoot themselves in the foot.

"It's colossally important," special teams coordinator Brian Murphy said. "If we're talking about winning a Super Bowl – which we are – that's a part of it."

It's a part of the game that mostly let Carolina down last season. The Panthers ranked last out of 32 NFL teams in net punting and 30th in punt return average, and they ranked in the bottom 10 in average field position after kicking off and after fielding a kickoff.

Olindo Mare finished second in the NFL with 53 touchbacks, but his 79-percent accuracy on field goals (22-for-28) tied for 25th among kickers with 15 or more attempts.

Change is afoot, with the increased emphasis on special teams evident on the roster, in meetings and on the practice field throughout offseason workouts.

In addition to Nakamura and Smith, free agent signings have included promising kicker Justin Medlock, proven punter Nick Harris and special teams specialist Kenny Onatolu. While Medlock was brought in to challenge Mare, Harris will compete with sixth-round draft choice Brad Nortman, one of several players drafted with special teams in mind. The Panthers picked electric punt returner Joe Adams in the fourth round and all-around contributor D.J. Campbell in the seventh.

The coaching staff also has grown with the addition of special teams assistant Richard Rodgers to complement Murphy.

"When (general manager) Marty (Hurney) was looking at certain free agents, one of the questions that he always wanted to ask was, 'What can you do for us on special teams?'" Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "And bringing Richard (Rodgers) in showed the completion of our commitment to special teams. After having evaluated last year and looking at things, the one mistake we made was not giving Murph help.

"We've corrected that by going out and finding a guy that coached it in college. He's going to add a little something to us and help Murph out tremendously."

Onatolu totaled 34 special teams tackles for the Minnesota Vikings under the leadership of Murphy in 2009 and 2010, and he added 15 more last season before reuniting with Murphy this offseason.

"He coached me in Minnesota, where I did real well on special teams, and he had a part in bringing me here," Onatolu said. "For a guy like me who played at a small school, went undrafted and played in Canada, special teams is everything. If you're not a starter, you've got to be dominant on special teams."

And now, a season after struggling on special teams, the Panthers hope a strong offseason puts them in position to do the dominating.

"The positive thing is that we've created competition," Murphy said. "Guys are going to have to earn roles, and that's only going to make us better.

"Everyone is in a fist fight. No one is taking anything for granted. Everyone is competing for a spot, and no one is cemented into a spot. There's clearly been a message sent that everyone needs to play a vital role."