CHARLOTTE - Health concerns forced Bruce DeHaven to take a leave of absence last spring, but DeHaven and his special teams units are doing well these days.
"We've got some guys that are flying around, trying to do the right thing," DeHaven said. "We always tell the guys, 'If you're not getting better, you're getting worse. You can't stay the same.' We're trying to improve."
The Panthers certainly have improved in DeHaven's first season in charge. They're an average of 13 spots higher in the NFL rankings than last season in punt and kickoff coverage, punt return average and gross and net punting. The only major category they officially haven't improved in is kickoff return, but they've only returned 10 kicks and are one of just four NFL teams to start three or fewer drives after receiving kickoffs inside the 20-yard line.
On the other hand, they're tied with Buffalo for the most opponents' drives starting inside the 20-yard line after kickoffs with 13. Last week at Tennessee they nearly came up with a game-breaking play, but Ted Ginn, Jr.'s 87-yard punt return was wiped out by a penalty.
"Guys on the return team are busting their butts, trying to get their blocks and their fits and things like that, and it really showed last week," Ginn said. "Bruce has been around for a while, and with his knowledge, that brings a lot to that room."
It may be DeHaven's first year as Carolina's special teams coordinator, but it isn't his first rodeo. He was a special teams coordinator for 26 NFL seasons – including four Super Bowl appearances with the Bills - before joining the Panthers as a special teams assistant in 2013.
This past offseason, he took over the coordinator role from Richard Rodgers, now an assistant defensive backs coach. Rodgers has been among a multitude of coaches pitching in to help elevate special teams performance.
"(Assistant special teams coach) Curtis (Fuller) is helping and (linebackers coach) Al (Holcomb) is helping and Coach Rodgers – we've got a lot of guys that are helping," DeHaven said. "It's like on offense and defense – you don't have just one guy coaching those sides of the ball."
More help came in May, when DeHaven was diagnosed with cancer and the Panthers hired Russ Purnell, who has 26 years of special teams experience on the NFL level. When DeHaven returned from a leave of absence prior to training camp, Purnell stayed on as a special teams assistant.
"Everybody wants to go out and play for Bruce and for Russ and for each other," said safety Colin Jones, a special teams stalwart. "You just want to go out and play hard for Bruce. That's just evident from everybody in that room – whether you're a defensive starter, a core guy or whether it's somebody playing five snaps a game.
"Last year we were finding ways to lose football games instead of helping win football games with the field position battle. That's so critical. When you're pinning teams inside the 20 five or six times with punt and kickoff coverage, that's difficult for offenses trying to consistently drive the ball downfield when they have so far to go."
View photos from the Panthers' week of practice leading up to their game versus Washington.