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Joey Slye working on mental game
Panthers kicker adds new element to offseason plan, to get his mind as strong as his leg.
By Darin Gantt May 29, 2021
Photographs By Brandon Todd

CHARLOTTE — Joey Slye is a strong young kicker, so you can see and understand why some people confuse him for a linebacker.

What he's trying to become is a strong old kicker, and to do so, he's spending his offseason working on all the stuff you can't see, to make himself better.

The Panthers kicker is, for the moment, without competition on the roster. That's not nearly the same as being established or safe, as Slye still has plenty to prove after a second season that opened the door to questions about his future.

He gets that.

Which is why he has a plan. A thorough plan. A detailed plan. A plan which involves many people, but has one end-point.

"Your mind is a muscle," Slye said. "Obviously, I love to lift. If I can make my brain as strong as my body, then I can become a better and more consistent kicker.

"Then I'll be able to show people things they can see."

Slye clearly has the kind of leg to make kicks few other NFL kickers can make. You don't even let people try field goals that would break NFL records if they can't get them there.

Now, it's a matter of hitting the ones that aren't record-breakers consistently, which is why Slye went into this offseason with a new regimen.

While he already had a trainer, and a nutritionist, and a chiropractor, and a personal kicking coach in addition to the Panthers special teams coaches, he's enlisted the help of Dr. Joanne Perry, a local sports psychologist. The goal is to bring his mental approach to the game in line with his considerable physical gifts.

And yes, he knows what that sounds like.

"I don't know if it's just a cultural value, or an American value, or a man thing," Slye said. "But the way it's perceived is that you only see someone if something's wrong, or you're weak. I probably had the same perception at some point, and you hear about these things, and said 'Whatever, I'm mentally tough.'

"It's not as simple as positive reinforcement, or thinking in terms of always doing something instead of don't do negative things. That's a naive vision. This is about understanding that there are going to be negative thoughts, knowing they're there, but learning how to get past them and get rid of them."

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Slye taking that kind of clinical approach is not news to longtime Panthers long snapper J.J. Jansen, who has worked with some top kickers in his 13 years here — allowing him to tap into the experiences of guys going back to John Kasay. That's why Jansen's so impressed with the maturity of the 25-year-old Slye, whom he describes as "incredibly intelligent and analytical, and he has been since Day 1."

"But in this game, you don't know what you need to know until you go through it," Jansen said. "Most young kickers bounce around the league for their first three or four years and don't get the kind of chances to grow into the job. So different teams see a guy in different phases of their development as a kicker. Joey's always been a guy who had all the physical tools. Now he's seeing where he can improve, and has game data to show what he needs to improve. He had the hammer, but he didn't know how to swing it.

"We all love success, but failure or a perceived failure can give you an opportunity to go find out how to get better. With a lot of young kickers, you never get to see the evolution. But once you find the tools and learn how to use them, the success starts compounding."

Slye showed some promise as a rookie in 2019, when he hit 8-of-11 field goals from 50 yards or longer. The problem was, he was also 8-of-11 from 40 to 49 yards, missing too many of what should be easier kicks.

Jansen described Slye's work last offseason as "methodical" in becoming more consistent on the shorter kicks, and the results were there, as Slye was an impressive 28-of-30 from inside 50 (and one of those misses was blocked).

The problem was the longer ones, and their timing.

Slye hit just 1-of-6 from beyond 50 last year, but all of those kicks were not nearly the same. The potential game-tying field goal at New Orleans from 65 yards was inches short of becoming a new league record (nearly topping Matt Prater's 64-yarder for the Broncos in 2013).

With that in mind, Panthers head coach Matt Rhule let Slye try a YOLO 67-yarder two weeks later at Kansas City, a desperation heave that never had much of a chance, as heroic and historic of a game-winner as it might have been.

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But those would have been miracles if he hit them. When he had a chance to win a game at Minnesota with a 54-yarder, Slye hooked it badly. Rhule would later describe it as the kind of kick Slye simply had to convert, saying: "that's got to be a routine kick at the end of the game."

Slye didn't have another chance to hit such a home run the rest of the year, and the culmination of all the bad stuff down the stretch for the Panthers (who lost four of their last five and nine of their last 11 games) left plenty of jobs in doubt.

The Panthers signed a few kickers for offseason "competition," but none of them lasted through the end of rookie minicamp.

Rhule said for now, the plan was to stick with Slye, as long as he kept showing progress.

"If he continues to do as well as we think he's going to, great," Rhule said. "If not, we know we can get someone off the street.

"I think Joey's done a great job of really growing as a kicker, from the mental performance mindset perspective, from the end of last year until now. He's taken that really seriously. That to me is the key. Usually, if you give me two swings at a golf ball, usually the second one I'll hit pretty good. But you don't get two swings when you're kicking a field goal.

"So your mind has to be right, and I think he's working really hard — and he's such a young player — to make sure his mind is always right."

Some of that work you can see. Some of it you can't. Slye's sessions with Dr. Perry have been a small part of an offseason devoted to making the change from having potential to delivering on it.

Slye's description of his program reveals an incredible level of detail. In discussing his research on gaining a physical edge, he dropped a mention of "cortisol levels," and how the body's stress hormone can affect performance. That's where his nutritional plan comes into play, as he's learning how to keep things steady.

"Obviously, you can't be worrying about food when you're kicking," he said. "To put it simplistically, it's about putting all the pieces together ahead of time, so you can see the results."

Those who work with him believe those results are coming.

His Charlotte-based kicking coach, Dan Orner, has watched Slye develop for a decade, since first meeting him at camp when Slye was in high school. Orner has worked with a number of NFL kickers (including Ryan Succop, Matt Gay and Connor Barth, among others), and believes Slye has the capability to become one of the top kickers in the game. That means being more than just strong, and Orner said he's seen incredible strides from Slye in terms of technique and pacing and body position (such as keeping your shoulders still while performing a violent whip with your lower body), the kinds of small differences that yield large dividends.

Slye called their work "kicking at the doctorate level," which he hopes to use to refine his strong right leg.

"There are probably only one or two guys in the league that have the kind of leg strength he does," Orner said. "A Justin Tucker, a Harrison Butker, a guy like Prater who is a long-ball legend. Joey fits at that level; he has elite-level strength.

"Over the last year, he's really cleaned up his technique, and he has gold-standard swings and body positioning now."

Orner's also worked with Slye and other kickers long enough to know nothing is given.

"He knows this is a big year for him," Orner said. "That's why he's fully committed to presenting the best version of Joey Slye he can."

As Slye talks about it, the answers can sound matter-of-fact. He understands that if he starts spraying extra points (he's missed seven in two years), or doesn't deliver more regularly late in games, he could be a former Panthers kicker at any time.

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But at the moment, the team believes in him enough to let him be the only kicker on the roster.

He wants to justify that faith, with his commitment to the incremental steps you have to take, the kind of thing his boss loves to hear but would rather see.

"I've looked at this offseason as an opportunity to grow, and I'm glad that coach Rhule sees some things to make him think I can do this," Slye said. "It's not just about thinking you're going to make a kick; it's about thinking about all the things you're supposed to do. It's about being confident in your preparation, and getting my brain to the point that I can slow myself down, and let the moment be about the process."

Slye's also smart enough to read a calendar, so he's not getting ahead of himself in his quest to make the job his own.

"Things seem good now," he said. "But you have to take some of this with a grain of salt; it's OTAs. . . .

"I know I have to prove myself when it matters."

Then again, that could be what he's doing right now, when there is no clock beside the one in his own head — where he's trying to get better.

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