CHARLOTTE — Panthers special teams coordinator Chris Tabor might be new to this job, but he has plenty of background with the guys he'll be coaching this year.
The veteran assistant coached Panthers kicker Zane Gonzalez during an uneven rookie year in Cleveland, and gets a more polished version of him this time around.
And new punter Johnny Hekker...he's haunted Tabor for a long time.
"Well, I've played against him a bunch of times, and I've lost a lot of sleep playing against him," Tabor said with a laugh Thursday when asked about his new punter. "First and foremost, he's a great athlete; obviously he's been one of the best punters in the league."
Hekker was the NFL's All-Decade punter of the 2010s, so when he became available this offseason, the decision to pursue him seemed natural for Tabor. His skills as a passer have always gotten plenty of notice, sometimes to the point it outshines his punting ability.
But Tabor pointed out that the Rams only had nine punts returned against them last season (the Panthers had 34 returned against them last year) as evidence of Hekker's continued solid work.
"So it's just him taking away returners because of punt location," Tabor said. "But the other thing is, being such a great athlete, he can throw the football now. That opens up a lot of doors, and it challenges you as a coach also to be creative with him.
"You have to play defense first as a punt return team, and he creates problems. And I'm really glad he's here as opposed to me facing him."
The respect is mutual, as Hekker said Tabor was a large part of his wanting to come here after the Rams released him in a cap-saving move. It was that, and perhaps the three-year contract, and Hekker even said long snapper JJ Jansen was "a decently-sized part." But he noted that Tabor's track record was significant.
"He has great energy about him," Hekker said. "I've been familiar with him for a long time. Around the league he garners a lot of respect when it comes to other special teams coaches, knowing his philosophy and the way he gets his players to buy into special teams. So knowing that, and being in the meeting room with him and talking to him one-on-one, his energy is infectious, and his love for the game is something that's going to be a real tool and asset for this team going forward.
"He's just a guy who cares about you as a human being, and wants you to have a great time while you're at work, working hard and kicking butt on special teams as well."
Tabor has 14 years of NFL experience, and recent success. The Bears ranked in the top 10 of Rick Gosselin's special teams rankings each of the last two years. Tabor also spent time with the Browns, and that time when he coached Gonzalez seems like forever ago, when he considers the differences in Gonzalez then and now.
In 2017, the seventh-round pick hit 15-of-20 field goals, and struggled with the transition to the NFL after his career at Arizona State. But when Tabor watched the tape of Gonzalez last year — when he hit 20-of-22 field goals, and 17 in a row before a freak pre-game injury in Buffalo — he saw a different kicker.
"He's obviously matured quite a bit," Tabor said of Gonzalez. "And I think having him as a rookie, and Zane and I talk about this all the time, there's a process for those guys that they go through. Think about, great college career, then they've got to prepare for the combine, from the combine, a lot of individual workouts with teams hoping to get drafted. Then they get drafted and they make a team, and then they prove their worth, then then make it to the season and the season starts. That's a lot of game days for those guys.
"I see a player now that's matured. He's changed the way that he looks, body-type wise. And he's learning — well not learning — he's become a pro. And I'm excited to have the opportunity to work with him and hopefully it will be fun."
Go behind the scenes with Hekker as he signed with Carolina on Monday.