CHARLOTTE – The last time Graham Gano was headed toward free agency, the Panthers signed him 11 days before he hit the open market.
Four years later, with Gano’s contract set to expire again, odds are he’ll eventually land back in Carolina. But as with most offseason business decisions, nothing’s guaranteed.
“I’m open to whatever is going to happen,” Gano said Monday as he cleaned out his locker. “Of course I love playing here, but there’s possibilities that I could be somewhere else. We’ll have to see what the team wants to do and what happens before free agency. If I happen to get to free agency, we’ll see what happens from there.”
If this were last winter, there would be a much better chance Gano may have been packing up for good. After missing eight field goal attempts and three extra points in 2016, the Panthers were forced to give someone else a look.
Of course, we know what happened next.
“For them having confidence in me at the beginning of the year meant a lot to me,” Gano said of winning his training camp battle with seventh-round draft pick Harrison Butker. “I feel like this year was really good. I’m blessed to have the opportunity I had this year with the team.”
While Butker went on to make a rookie record 38 field goals with the Chiefs, Gano was even more dependable. He knocked through all but one of his 30 attempts to lead the league with a franchise-record 96.7 field goal percentage. He also continued to double as a weapon on kickoffs with a league-leading 85.4 touchback percentage. But that was all during the regular season. Last weekend’s wild card playoff in New Orleans wasn’t as shiny.
Moments after wideout Kaelin Clay dropped what should have given the Panthers an early lead, Gano jogged in for a gimme 25-yard field goal. But that went wide right.
“Last year was such a crazy year – starting with the Denver game and having a really good year up until the last game,” Gano said. “I felt like I learned some good lessons from that so when I faced a bit of adversity missing that short one, it’s kind of like, ‘whatever.’ There’s nothing I can do to change that so you might as well kick well after that.”
To his credit, Gano came through when the offense couldn’t in the red zone. He kept the Panthers in the game with four field goals, including a franchise-record 58-yarder at the end of the first half.
“I was fully confident after (the miss), especially hitting the 58-yarder to energize the team going into halftime. It was just disappointing not coming out with the win,” Gano said. “But I feel like that's what separates me from other people. I can put something like that behind me and continue to have success.”
Gano is guaranteed to represent the Panthers in at least one more game. Later this month he'll head to his first Pro Bowl as a replacement for injured Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein. After that, though?
“I’ve got to pack it all. Nothing’s guaranteed for me here,” Gano said.
“But it’s been fun here. We’re going to call Carolina home and we’ll see what happens from here. I honestly have no idea what’s going to happen. We’ll just wait and see.”