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Carolina Panthers

For Chris Tabor, it's about being "prepared for anything"

Chris Tabor

CHARLOTTE — It's easy to see that the Panthers are scrambling to fill a special teams job now after they lost Zane Gonzalez to a "significant" injury Friday night, and they're in the process of finding another kicker.

But scrambling is part of the job description of a special teams coach anyway, since they have to be the MacGyvers or Top Chef contestants of a coaching staff, ready to improvise at a moment's notice with whatever ingredients they happen to get that week.

Not only do they have to change tires on a moving car, they might have to do it with parts that weren't designed for that model of car at all.

Days before the Gonzalez injury, Panthers special teams coach Chris Tabor laughed a little when asked about the ability to constantly adapt to changing conditions, because it's something he has to do every week.

"You're always communicating with the head coach and watching practice, and you're always talking about it," Tabor said. "So you're not surprised by anything, but you're prepared for anything.

"That's the way I like to look at it; never surprised, be prepared."

Of course, surprises lurk around every corner, and it doesn't take a sideline warm-up injury to a kicker to change things considerably for that group. Last year, an in-game injury to offensive lineman Pat Elflein caused them to have to remake the field goal team on the fly, and they ended up sticking a defensive tackle into an offensive line spot. That resulted in a blocked field goal against the Saints, illustrative of how seemingly unrelated factors can impact the kicking game.

If a starting linebacker who doesn't play special teams gets hurt, his backup might not be able to play 70 snaps of defense and run down every kick. But he also has to cross-train players to be ready for anything that might come up. Not only does punter Johnny Hekker have to be able to kick an extra point in the middle of a game if something goes wrong, but Hekker's holding spot has to be filled as well (quarterback PJ Walker did the honors for Hekker Friday). They brought in one of the best returners of this generation in Andre Roberts this offseason, but they're also developing Shi Smith for those roles as well.

PJ Walker, Johnny Hekker

"Yeah, but that can be true for offense and defense too; It's the common cliche, but it's next man up," Tabor said with a shrug. "Now, within that next man up, we have to make sure we're bringing other players along. He could be on the practice squad, and he gets elevated. You're coaching him just as much as you are the other guys. It's a fact; he's going to play before the year's over with, so you've got to get him ready."

So while every coach is getting his starters ready for that week's game, Tabor's depth charts effectively include every player on the roster, and have to reach much deeper than just starters and backups.

"What I do, sometimes you have guys who play multiple spots," Tabor said. "So if a guy gets hurt, it's not always a one-for-one exchange. It might be one for two. I might end up taking a player out of his position because he's better suited to replace the hurt player, and then I got to get somebody for him to keep the team strong. It's just whatever the pieces of the puzzle are, to be honest with you.

"It's part of what makes it fun, to be honest with you."

Fun? Or chaotic?

"It can be both," he said.

Chris Tabor, Shi Smith, Matt Rhule, Cedric Whitaker

Of course, this week presents an even bigger challenge, as they also cut the roster from 80 to 53 by Tuesday's deadline in addition to finding a new kicker. That would be hard enough, as Tabor generally has to put together his units from the leftovers of backup linebackers and tight ends and defensive backs and others.

There are a few players whose jobs are primarily for special teams, beyond the kicker and punter and long snapper.

Head coach Matt Rhule recently mentioned reserve cornerback Stantley Thomas-Oliver III, who is probably the fourth or fifth cornerback in the defensive rotation, but a starter as a gunner on the punt team. And as Rhule said, an excellent special teams player can be more valuable than a depth player who only plays offense or defense.

"I don't want to start saying guys are on the roster, but STO is on this roster," Rhule said a week ago. "I mean, that guy, the gunner play we have is pretty darned near elite. Guys are running down and beating really good players and making solo tackles. I made that point to guys in there, what Stantley Thomas-Oliver is doing right now is awesome, playing on four core special teams, and he's playing at a high level. And so is Sam Franklin Jr.. The way they're playing, people are noticing them."

Stantley Thomas-Oliver

Tight end/fullback Giovanni Ricci and some others on the roster fall into that category, but it's constantly changing. A year ago, Frankie Luvu was a core special teamer, but now that he's a starter and a bigger contributor on defense, he might not be as available to Tabor as he might have been.

There are guys Tabor will fight for as the team reduces the roster, but Tabor said those are daily discussions, rather than last-minute campaigns.

"That's part of the gymnastics of the roster; it's always interesting," Tabor said. "I think you answer those questions as they come along. Coach does a great job; we talk about personnel every day. So to me, it's not about jumping up and down for a guy, it's about talking every day about what they're doing, how they're doing, and how they can be used.

"You're doing it all. You want to know exactly how the roster lives and how it breathes."

And when you're a special teams coach, you have to always have a Plan B — and a C and a D and an E as well — because the only thing you can truly count on is that change is one play away.

View the best photos of Carolina's 21-0 shutout of Buffalo in the preseason finale at Bank of America Stadium.

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