CHARLOTTE – While the NFL's rule change aimed at further curbing kickoff returns may not have its intended effect, the change to the point-after-touchdown a year ago is accomplishing its goal.
Regardless of how the rules are written or rewritten, the Panthers can take solace in the fact that they have a kicker capable of adjusting and delivering.
"I don't think it affects me too much," Graham Gano said. "I think I'll be able to do any kick they ask me to do to help us win."
That's what Gano has consistently done since joining the Panthers in the latter stages of the 2012 season. Over his three full seasons with the Panthers, he leads the league with touchbacks on 74.2 percent of his kickoffs. But over his first three seasons in the NFL, he was asked to employ directional kickoffs designed to pin kickoff return teams – a skill that could come in handy again this season.
When teams kicked off from the 30-yard line prior to 2011, touchbacks were harder to come by and kickers were often charged with executing directional kickoffs – a skill that could come back into play this season.
To limit the number of kickoff returns with player safety in mind, the league moved kickoffs up to the 35-yard line in 2011, allowing kickers like Gano to unleash their big legs and rack up touchbacks. Some teams, however, began returning the ball from eight or nine yards deep in the end zone, so this year the league will begin placing touchbacks at the 25-yard line.
The idea was to dissuade teams from trying to return kicks from deep in the end zone because of the added challenge of getting beyond the 25-yard line. Instead, some kickoff teams aren't willing to give opposing offense the ball at the 25, so they've broken out "mortar kicks" – high, directional kickoffs aimed at pinning returners inside the 25.
Gano, entering his eighth year in the league, is ready for whatever approach the Panthers decide to take in any given situation.
"You'll probably see more returns around the league," Gano said. "There's a lot of strategy now. I've seen a lot of teams around the league kicking it high and short and having a lot of success getting tackles inside the 20.
"So from a strategic standpoint, I think you'll see a lot more returns, but it also depends on the returner you're kicking it to. There are a lot of dangerous guys out there, so you also want to have the ability to boot it through the end zone."
Last year, Gano had to deal with an even bigger change to the kicking game when the NFL backed up extra points from the 2-yard line to the 15, remaking what had been a 20-yard chip shot into a 33-yard occasional adventure.
The NFL had an average of 7.4 missed PATs per season from 2010-14. Last season alone, there were 71 misses.
"I think it went just about how everybody thought it would," said Gano, who made a league-high 56 PATs last season but missed three after previously missing a total of three in his career. "It's definitely a more challenging kick. It's not extremely far, but you throw in a little wind or change in surface, and that can play into it now.
"I feel like that's where the veteran kickers have an advantage, because you're used to dealing with a little bit of adversity. If anything, it made me a better kicker, made me focus a little more on all the kicks."
Gano was named NFC Special Teams Player of the Month last November, a special month in which he was 6-for-6 on field goals of 48 or more yards. The month began with Gano keying a victory made possible by the overtime rule change of 2012, first kicking a field goal to match Indianapolis' field goal to open overtime, then booting a 52-yarder in the rain to win it.
View photos of practice from the fourth week of the preseason.