CHARLOTTE – For the first time since Week 5, the Panthers made it through a game without a mishap returning kicks. Between muffed punt and kick returns and straight up fumbles, the Panthers had put the ball on the ground five times during returns this season.
After waiving former returner Ray-Ray McCloud following the team's Week 6 victory over the Buccaneers, the Panthers acquired rookie Greg Dortch to try and solve their return game problems. Still, as an undrafted free agent fresh off the Jets' practice squad, head coach Ron Rivera decided to give the rookie a week to get his feet under him. As a result, Dortch was held out against the 49ers – a game that saw muffs on both punt and kickoff returns.
But against the Titans, it was finally time to see what Dortch could do, and he didn't disappoint.
"I really just tried to go out there and do my job," Dortch said. "Flip the field as much as I could. Get 10 yards, get 20 yards, get a touchdown. I just tried to go out there and do my best."
Dortch caught two punts, returning one for 11 yards, and averaged 26 yards on two kickoff returns. Most importantly, though, he didn't put the ball on the ground.
"I thought he made some good decisions," Rivera said. "As I said before, I think he's a dynamic returner. He did some really nice things, created some good field position for us, one on a punt return, one on a kickoff return, so that's important."
It's not every day you make your NFL debut, and making it at punt returner, a notoriously unforgiving position, only adds to the pressure. All eyes on you, standing vulnerably and staring into the sky while 11 other players run full speed trying to take you out. As Panthers fans have witnessed, one bad move and the game can be flipped.
Thoughts like that were admittedly running through Dortch's mind before his first play.
"I was a little nervous, not going to lie, coming into the game," Dortch said. "I kept telling myself that it's just football, you've been playing it since you were five years old, so just go out and have fun."
But once he had his first catch under his belt, it was back to normal for the rookie.
"I got my first punt return out of the way, I was like, 'OK, I'm good. It's just football.' It was exciting just getting an opportunity to show my abilities and help the team."
For a team that has had questions in the return game nearly the entire season, Dortch may finally be the answer the Panthers need. He's certainly done enough to grab Rivera's attention after one game. Now the only question is can he keep it up.
"If you can get a punt return at or around 10 yards or more, you've taken one less first down you've got to create on offense," Rivera said. "He's done a nice job already, and we'll see how he goes as we go into next week."
View all of the best photos from the field, locker room, sideline and postgame from Carolina's home win over Tennessee.