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Little things can make big differences in a win

Chris Tabor

CHARLOTTE — The Panthers, in case you haven't noticed, are operating with the thinnest of margins of error this season.

So, in the instance of their second win of a frustrating and long season, it was instructive that they did so many small things well and played the kind of situational football they haven't in many cases in recent years.

Of course, it helps that the guy calling the shots is interim head coach and special teams coordinator Chris Tabor. When it's time to take unconventional timeouts because of the direction of the wind or let linebackers kickoff, it's on purpose and done for the kinds of microscopic edges that can make a big difference on a day when a struggling team is trying to steal one in a monsoon.

"I think all week, that's what we were talking about preparing for this rainy game, preparing for these crazy winds," tight end and special teams staple Tommy Tremble said. "And Tabes he was talking about, I'm going to do everything I can to help us win this, like him calling that timeout.

"People wouldn't even know that unless they see the result right now. It was one of the deciding factors, just little things that win the game. And so being able to trust him to do that stuff, man, it was awesome."

In the course of a game that is often consumed in highlight-clip-sized bites, the timing of a first-half timeout might not seem significant. But with the clock dwindling in the first quarter, Tabor used his first timeout with three seconds left before the end of the period, after a third-down pass to Jonathan Mingo was stopped short of a conversion. The reason was very specific. The Panthers were pointed toward the west end zone and had the wind at their backs. So rather than letting the clock wind down three pointless seconds and kick into it, Tabor gave Johnny Hekker the chance to use the conditions to his advantage.

How big of an advantage? Ask punt returner Ihmir Smith-Marsette, who muffed one when trying to field a punt in that direction in the second quarter.

"I mean, you've seen that wind, you've seen that punt, right, where it landed," Smith-Marsette said. "You play field position; they punt it back to us. Now we got field position. It's the game within the game.

"Towards our tunnel where we come out of, the ball was traveling further that way to this side; it was stopping because the wind had a cross-wind, and it was facing towards their sideline, which was basically stopping the ball."

Wind direction. When you're 2-12, how much of a difference can the breeze make? Maybe the difference in a win is if you stack enough of those little differences up.

Johnny Hekker

Similarly, the Panthers elected to switch up their kickoff team in hopes of another one.

Since Tabor wanted to squib-kick to the Falcons in two particular situations anyway, he brought do-it-all linebacker/special teamer Kamu Grugier-Hill in to replace kicker Eddy Piñeiro.

Grugier-Hill can do a lot of stuff, including playing on all the special teams units and even long snapping if he had to. But having him kickoff gave the Panthers another one of those small edges in a weather game (something Tabor learned while coaching with the Browns and Bears), especially when playing against an elite returner like Falcons star Cordarrelle Patterson.

"Well, we thought about that early in the week," Tabor explained. "That kind of goes a little bit about when you coach up north, and then you're playing Cordarrelle Patterson back there, and you're talking about field position. Eddy obviously can kick off for us, but that, that wind out there, what we were trying to do with Kamu really, teams don't account for the kicker in coverage. So now we're getting an obviously better tackler out there.

"So that's why we did that when we were going that way. The point was those were going to be squibs anyway because squibs, I mean, what they get it to the 29 or 30. I mean, I'm OK with that on this type of day, because it was about field position where our defense plays."

Kamu Grugier-Hill

So, with the small stuff taken care of, Tabor was also in a position to make a big decision late.

With the Panthers embarking on one of their best offensive drives of the season — a 17-play, 85-yard march for the game-winner — there was a point at which it looked like the Falcons were willing to let them score for a chance to get the ball back. But once running back Chuba Hubbard converted a third-and-3 with a 6-yard burst to the 2-yard line, the Falcons were forced to use their final timeout.

At that point, rather than try for a touchdown, he had quarterback Bryce Young take three knees to let Piñeiro seal the game with an easy 23-yard field goal, or as easy as it gets in the kind of monsoon the Panthers were playing in.

"We've got a lot of confidence in our kicker," Tabor said. "You know what, the 2-yard line, the 3-yard line, right down the middle, I like our chances."

231217 Panthers vs Falcons Post Game CSW-28

It was a gratifying way to end the game in a season that lacked many such chances, so Tabor was grateful that it came at all, much less in one decided by those tiny special teams margins. They're still 2-12, and that's bad, he gets that. But it's so much better than 1-13 that the difference was worth fighting over every inch of real estate.

"No, it was, it was fun," Tabor admitted. "We talked about it all week; we talked about it right in here starting on Wednesday of what the day was going to look like, from everything, the weather, the wind, how we were going to have to play the game. And at the end, we just kept saying we are going to win this game, and that's what they did. Anytime you have a 17-play drive at the end of the game to get a walk-off field goal. I think that says something about your kids and your guys. So I couldn't be more proud of them.

"We just keep going, and I know that we're not where we want to be. I understand all that, but based on that tape, you can't question who they are, and I was really happy for them that they were able to break through. You know, sometimes you knock at the door all the time, and no one answers. Then sooner or later, you've got to kick it down, and we did it tonight."

And sometimes, it takes the guy in charge of the kicking game making calls based on kicking with the wind, not letting the kicker kick, or letting the kicker kick in a less-than-ideal situation to kick that door down.

"Even at the end of the game, when we could have run it in, they probably would have let us run in the end zone; he was smart enough," Tremble said. "Coach Tabes knew what we wanted to do, trusted in Eddy, and was able to take those knees and take the win. It was awesome, man, believing in him 100 percent.

"I think it's really the only thing you can do — because either you can use this season to just fall apart or use it to just keep building. And I think, really, today we had 100 percent faith that he was going to put us in a position to win, and the coaching staff was going put us in a position to win, and they did that today."

View all the action from the Panthers game against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 15.

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