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Panthers try fake punt, trusting Johnny Hekker's arm

Laviska Shenault

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Normally, punters just punt.

Johnny Hekker is not a normal punter.

The Panthers team captain had a full day, from a pass on a fake punt which could have been a momentum-swinger, to a late scuffle with Dolphins linebacker Cameron Goode, which he shook his head and referred to as "Headbutt-Gate."

It was a full day, but full of the kind of things they've come to expect from him.

"Johnny is a full-blooded football player," long snapper JJ Jansen said. "I think you kind of saw all parts of that today. And he's a great guy to have on your team because he's not a punter, he's a football player. So he wants to help us win.

"He's looking for opportunities to affect the game with his foot, with his arm, with just his recognition of what's happening on the field. I mean, he's looking to impact the game in a number of ways."

Johnny Hekker

Because of the confidence they have in his arm (Hekker has an 84.2 career passer rating), they're willing to let him try it in tight situations.

After the Dolphins had scored their first touchdown to cut the Panthers' lead to 14-7, their next drive stalled at their own 49-yard line at fourth-and-8.

Knowing how quickly the Dolphins can score, they decided to roll the dice. Panthers head coach Frank Reich said it was the first time in his coaching career he's called a fake punt, and it nearly worked.

Hekker completed his pass to Laviska Shenault Jr., who, after a lengthy review, was ruled inches short of a first-down.

"It was close, you know," Reich said. "It was close. Laviska made a nice effort, you know. We knew going in all week, just talking to coach (Chris) Tabor, he did a great job. They made me a believer during the week that this could work, and you know, we just missed it by a few inches.

"We said we'd go anywhere to all the way up to fourth-and-10 because we thought we thought it would be a big play."

Hekker was frustrated at how close it came to working, partially because he didn't think his pass to Shenault was as precise as it could have been and that he could have led him into the open field a bit more. He was a decorated high school quarterback and could serve as one in case of emergency, so the fact it wasn't a perfect pass bothered him.

"It was a deal where I wish the throw was a little bit cleaner," Hekker said. "I put it on his pads; if it's up, he just catches it and keep rolling.

"We fought hard, fought hard, tried to get the first down, just came up inches short. It sucks. You know, if we get those opportunities, we have to make the most of them."

In his career, Hekker's 15-of-24 passing for 193 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. So he's done this before and thinks they could do it again.

He had Hayden Hurst as another option on the play, with new personal protector Matthias Farley as a safety valve. But he opted to go with the catch-and-run option of Shenault.

"You get in those positions, and we want to be attacking, we want to be aggressive and I mean, it's a great play for us. If Hayden had popped on his route, that would have been a really big gain for us down in the red zone and, you know, potentially take a bigger lead.

"And you know, it's just a moment where we had a play against an explosive offense like that. You do everything you can to keep them off the field. And I'm just proud of the way the guys work to execute the play, and we're going to continue to be aggressive on teams and do what we can to help our team work."

Laviska Shenault

That aggressive nature also showed up in the second half, when he hit the punter exacta by adding an unnecessary roughness penalty to his stat line.

After an initial dust-up with Goode following a punt, Hekker walked up to him in a non-peaceful way, and made helmet-to-helmet contact. He objected to the characterization of a headbutt, believing Goode flopped in a manner that made it something Trent Crimm should have written about.

"Faux Headbutt-Gate, is what it should be," Hekker said. "I barely touched him. I walked up to him face-to-face, but I mean, you can't.

"I know I can't put myself in this position to even go back after guys. It's never worth it. Kids, if you're out there, just walk away; it's the right thing to do. I knew that as a kid, and I just forgot that in my frustration."

Jansen grinned as Hekker described it, knowing Goode's dive was more egregious than Hekker's "headbutt." But he also believes in Hekker's ability to help lead the team by making plays like the one early in the game.

"I think he's obviously a valuable weapon for more than just his leg," Jansen said.

View all the action from the Panthers' game in Week 6 against the Miami Dolphins.

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