CHARLOTTE – The last time the Panthers took either a kick or punt for a touchdown was the last time they played the Bears. That was Philly Brown's wacky return in 2014.
But last week against the Eagles, both units had decent chances to score.
Early in the third quarter, Curtis Samuel came this close to becoming the first Panther with a kickoff return touchdown since Kealoha Pilares did it in Detroit six years ago:
"I'm not sure if it was my foot or (Russell Shepard's) foot," Samuel said Wednesday when asked how he tripped up. "I guess I was so excited because I saw the hole and I saw the lane. I envisioned scoring, so I guess I got overexcited.
"If I didn't trip, oh, it was a touchdown."
One quarter before Samuel's unfortunate trip, Christian McCaffrey broke off a season-best 25-yard punt return:
So the Panthers still haven't produced a big play on special teams this season, but they haven't given up one, either.
"We're doing OK. I think we're a work in progress," special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey said. "We've done some good things and obviously there as some things we can improve on, but I like the direction we're going."
Six weeks into 2017, most of the NFL's special teams rankings put the Panthers pretty much in the middle of the pack:
- Net punt return average – 13th
- Net punting average – t21st
- Kickoff return average – 25th
- Kickoff return average allowed – 18th
- Field goal percentage – t7th
But Samuel and McCaffrey are threats Carolina hasn't had in a long, long time.
"We're getting better, so it's showing progress and that's what you want to see," McGaughey said. "You want to see guys moving in the right direction. You know there's a maturation process that's taking place, so it's good for us."
Here's some more from Wednesday's conversation with McGaughey:
Q: A lot of people are still waiting for McCaffrey to uncork a big return. Can you explain why that's not so simple?
TM: "Because it's the NFL. He's not in the Pac-12 anymore. The big men run just as fast as he does. It's a learning curve, and once you figure out how the game is played on this level, everything else takes care of itself. When you know what to do, you do what you know. Now the knowing part for him is that growing part."
Q: Some teams dare opponents to return kickoffs, but you've had Graham Gano boot all but two of his kicks through the end zone this year. Why is that your common strategy?
TM: "It's based upon game situation, the ebb and flow of the game, we take everything into consideration. If we feel like we need to make a play, we'll try to make a play, and if we don't, we'll just kick it through the end zone. Graham has probably the strongest leg in the league, and with the turnover and injuries, it's tough because sometimes you don't have your normal guys in there covering. So whenever you've got a guy like Graham to lean on, that's a weapon you can use. If they have a returner who's really good, you can just take him right out."
Q: On the other side, your returners have had 10 chances on 27 kickoffs. How do you decide whether a guy should bring it out of the end zone or take a touchback?
TM: "It's a case-by-case, game-by-game basis depending on the kicker, his hang time, his distance. It depends on the team. Are they a fast team or slower team? It's a game-by-game basis."
Q: The Bears are ranked 32nd in yards allowed on both kickoffs and punts, and each unit gave up touchdown returns last week. Is this weekend a chance to take advantage of a club struggling on special teams?
TM: "I gave the guys the analogy of poking a bear. What happens when you poke a bear? He gets upset. So that's a poked bear over there. We know those guys are going to be fired up ready to redeem themselves after that performance. I've been through it before as a coach. You're itching to get back at it and you want to make a big play to make everybody forget the last one that happened to you."
View photos of the week of practice leading up to the Panthers' game against the Bears.