Andy Lee hopes to stretch out his time with Panthers

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CHARLOTTE - You'd think a professional athlete, especially one who makes his living with his leg, would spend a ton of time stretching.

But not Michael Palardy.

"I used to come out and just kick balls," the Panthers punter said Wednesday.

That's right – a three-time Pro Bowler punted 1,047 times and played 192 consecutive games despite a stretching routine he described as: "Not a ton, a little bit."

But that 1,047th punt was a problem.

As (bad) luck would have it, Lee was actually stretching when he suffered his first major injury. It was early in a Week 10 loss to Kansas City when Lee began "aggressive" side lunges while the offense faced a third down.

"I felt a pop and I was like, 'That's weird.' I swung my leg and it popped again. But it didn't hurt," Lee recalled. "Every time you see someone tear their hamstring, they're in pain. So I thought it was just grabbing or something.

"Then it started to hurt a little bit, and they called for the punt team."

With his right leg aching, Lee somehow uncorked a 43-yard punt before limping off the field. A day later, he went on injured reserve with a torn hamstring.

For the first time in 12-plus seasons, Lee was left to finish the year on the sideline. For the Panthers, who in late August patched up their hole at punter by trading a 2018 fourth-round pick to Cleveland for Lee, it was another blow during a spiraling season.

Sure, Lee isn't an every-down guy, but he was arguably Carolina's most dependable player through the first half of 2016. Impressively, half of his 36 kicks landed inside the 20-yard line, and his 49.1 yards per punt average was the second best of his career.

"It was annoying," Lee said. "I think the biggest thing was thinking, 'Am I going to be able to kick again?' Even when you get a common cold, if you have it for like four days, you think, 'Am I going to feel normal again? Is this ever going to go away?'"

With Michael Palardy finishing out the year, Lee spent most of his final few weeks of 2016 in the trainers' room. But five months later, the ball is again booming off his foot.

"I feel good. I feel I'm hitting the ball well," Lee said.

"I don't know if you'd ever say (getting hurt) is a good thing, but it could have been a good thing for me being able to take care of myself a little more. I warm up better now. I'm a little more careful."

The more cautious Lee now includes a stretching regiment before and after practices. Because even though he turns 35 in August, the Charlotte resident of the past four years wants to keep playing where he lives.

"My personal goal right now is to play four to five more seasons," Lee said. "Obviously I'm here, so I'll play as long as I can because I'm home now.

"As long as I can stay here, I'd play 10 more years. I'll go until I get my butt kicked out."

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