CHARLOTTE – Chase Blackburn had a passion for playing special teams throughout his 10 seasons in the league, a nice niche he carved out that got him on the field more often.
That attitude is admirable but also not that surprising from an undrafted linebacker trying to stick on a roster. But now as the Panthers' special teams coordinator, Blackburn is benefitting and in some ways bringing out that same attitude in guys who don't have to rely on special teams to keep them on the active roster come game day.
"The guys really enjoy it. They want to be out there every rep," Blackburn said after a pair of receivers – first-round draft pick DJ Moore and second-rounder Curtis Samuel – keyed a special teams play Sunday that would have been the special teams play on any other day.
"DJ doesn't want to come off the field; Curtis doesn't want to come off the field. Jarius Wright wants to cover kicks," Blackburn continued. "We've got guys who want to play, want to compete. That's the best plus you can have as a coach."
In Sunday's 33-31 victory over the Giants courtesy of Graham Gano's last-second field goal from 63 yards out, Moore and Samuel combined to create a loose-ball situation three times on a Carolina punt to set up Carolina's first special teams touchdown of the season. Moore's speedy arrival inside the 5 prompted Giants return man Odell Beckham Jr. to come over and try to thwart his path toward downing the ball, but in the process the ball hit Beckham in the leg.
Giants cornerback Janoris Jenkins tried to pick it up and return it, but Samuel flew in and stripped him. Giants cornerback Eli Apple lunged for the ball in the end zone in an attempt to limit the damage, but Moore doubled back and fell on him to set the ball free again. That's when Panthers safety Colin Jones fell on it for six.
Blackburn said Monday he was hoarse from celebrating Sunday, and Gano's kick no doubt contributed to that. But he was pretty fired up about the touchdown as well.
"It was exciting for our guys to have such an impact on that game," he said. "I couldn't do anything in that game. I wasn't on the field. The guys that played for us are the ones that made the important plays. I couldn't be happier for them."
Special teams coaches face an unique challenge in that sometimes their best players are taken away not because of injury but because of their role elsewhere, and that could be a further challenge for Blackburn and assistant Heath Farwell as the season progresses. Samuel played 12 snaps on both offense and special teams in his season debut Sunday, while Moore played just three snaps on special teams versus 29 on offense. On the other hand, the return of linebacker Thomas Davis from a four-game suspension means the special teams coaches could get more support from Shaq Thompson moving forward. Thompson averaged just four special teams snaps during Davis' absence after averaging more than twice that number in 2017.
Blackburn, who played with Davis in Carolina in 2013 and '14, joked that maybe Davis himself might pitch in on special teams.
"It would be great to have him out there, wouldn't it?"
While some special teamers come and go for Blackburn, he obviously can always count on his specialists – as was the case more than ever Sunday. Blackburn said he felt a calm before Gano's kick that matched the longest game-winner in NFL history – in part because of who Gano is but because it was such a long kick.
"I know it sounds weird, but a 63-yard game-winner might be easier than a 50-yard game-winner," Blackburn said. "The perception is that kickers are good from 50 yards. Kick it from 63, most people think there's no chance of making it. The pressure is kind of off even though it's a game-winning kick and a longer kick.
"Graham had a lot of confidence, but also that situation was good for him."
And Sunday was a good situation for Blackburn. Facing the team he played for his first eight seasons, he saw his special teams players celebrated during pregame introductions and then got to celebrate their successes after the game.
"Let's do it every game, right? If we have a game like that where we can have an impact?" Blackburn said. "It was good. The guys really enjoyed the opportunity to be recognized for everything they do."