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Dayton Fliers: Return to relevance


In a year in which the new kickoff rule has largely taken the return game out of the NFL, Kealoha Pilares had brought it back for the Carolina Panthers. 

Two weeks ago, the rookie from Hawaii set a team record with a 101-yard kickoff scoring return at Detroit. Last week, his 76-yard return that set up a fourth-quarter field goal was pivotal in Carolina's 27-19 victory at Indianapolis.

The touchdown return against the Lions broke a drought for the Panthers that extended back to 2003. When Rod Smart (once known as "He Hate Me" when he played in the UFL) ran 100 yards through New Orleans, it didn't seem so unusual because there had been eight other kickoffs returned for touchdowns since the Panthers had first taken the field in 1995.

No one knew there wouldn't be another one until eight years later. And there was little in Pilares' college career for the Warriors that indicated he would be the one to bring water to the thirsting lips of Carolina's special teams.

He had returned seven kickoff returns in college for 156 yards and brought back five punts for 31 yards. Those totals were for his career, not for one season.

However, there was a combination of speed and elusiveness as a pass receiver that the Carolina scouts thought could translate to the return game. The speed was evident early in the preseason, when Pilares caught a swing pass in the first game and turned it into a 35-yard touchdown against the New York Giants.

!But just as it appeared he might possibly be an answer to the Panthers' special teams struggles, a pulled hamstring put him on the shelf, and Pilares was largely forgotten in the first half of the season. Now he is making a name for himself while making Panthers fans recall another: Michael Bates.

Any conversation of Panthers special teams would be incomplete without a look back at Bates, who was not only the gold standard for Carolina, but also for the league. In 1996, he averaged more than 30 yards per kickoff return while also playing gunner on the Panthers' outstanding coverage units, ranked among the best in pro football.

In 1997, he threatened to become the first player since Abe Woodson in 1962 and '63 to average 30 yards per kickoff return in back-to-back seasons before settling for a 27.3 average. He was recognized by both fans and his peers as one of the game's best: Five straight years, he was selected to the Pro Bowl as the NFC's special teams player.

When Bates was replaced by Steve Smith, whose first NFL kickoff return resulted in a touchdown at Minnesota to open the 2001 season, special teams looked easy for the Panthers. Then Smart stepped in for Smith and returned his kickoff for a score against the Saints in Week 3 of 2003.

The Panthers have learned over the years that the unit is not so easy after all. While no one is confusing him with Bates or Smith, Pilares' 29.3 yard average currently leads the NFC and has put the fun back in the kickoff in Carolina.

At last.

Director of Communications Charlie Dayton has worked 34 years in the NFL. Before joining the Panthers in 1994, he was VP of Communications for the Washington Redskins. Dayton has worked on the NFL media staff for 25 Super Bowls, is a past winner of the Horrigan Award and was recently recognized with the National Association of Black Journalists Merit Award.

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