Graham Gano says he isn’t a bit superstitious, which is a good thing since I’m about to mention that he has not missed a field goal all season.
Gano is 10-for-10 entering Sunday’s 1 p.m. game at Detroit, including his 48-yard, game-winning field goal as time expired at New England last week in a 33-30 victory. He has been almost perfect – a missed extra point against New England the only flaw – through four games and is blasting his kickoffs out the back of the end zone as usual.
“I feel good,” Gano says. “And it helps that I’m healthy.”
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Indeed, Gano played through a little-publicized injury to his plant foot for part of 2016. For the final part of the season, the bone had snapped entirely, but he still kept kicking. His 1-for-4 effort in the 2016 season finale against Tampa Bay sounds a bit more understandable viewed through that lens.
Offseason surgery followed, as did a reality check. The Panthers drafted Harrison Butker in the seventh round of the 2017 NFL draft – the first time the team had ever drafted a kicker.
Butker was brought in to possibly take Gano’s job. Rather than view Butker as the competition and give him the silent treatment, though, he did something else.
“Graham treated Harrison like he was a mentor,” Panthers punter Michael Palardy said. “He encouraged him all the time. It was amazing to see.”
Gano in the meantime went on to have a very strong training camp. But so did Butker, whom Panthers coaches believed could also play in the NFL. The Panthers liked them both, so much so that they did something almost unheard of when they kept two kickers on the 53-man roster for Week 1.
They needed that roster spot as soon as the first wave of injuries hit and eventually had to release Butker, sneaking him onto their practice squad. That didn’t last long, either, as Kansas City snapped him up before Week 4. Butker missed his first career NFL field goal last Sunday but then made three in a row, including the game-winner. Gano tweeted his congratulations.
So both Gano and Butker hit game-winning field goals in the same week. The Panthers’ place-kicking job never did go anywhere, though – Gano holds it outright, just as he has since 2012. The start he has had this season after hitting only 78.9 percent of his kicks in 2016 – a career low for Gano as a Panther – has his teammates trusting him completely.
“It helps so much when you have a field-goal kicker who can win games for you,” Panthers wide receiver Russell Shepard said. “Gano can do that. For most of my NFL career (in Tampa Bay), I’ve been on teams where the field-goal kicker has really struggled. That can cause problems in the locker room.”
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Although kickers are stereotypically supposed to be quirky, Gano has never embraced that sort of reputation. He was a track star in high school in Florida and has a deep Christian faith. He lists “husband” and “father” before placekicker on his Twitter biography. He’s also smart enough to only make tackles on kickoffs when absolutely necessary. Otherwise, he likes to be “ITV,” which is what Gano likes to call “in the vicinity.”
Because Gano missed eight field goals and three extra points last season, it’s sometimes easy to forget the three good years in a row he had before then for Carolina.
Ron Rivera doesn’t forget, though. When I asked the Panthers head coach if Gano’s kick to beat the defending Super Bowl career was his best considering the circumstances, Rivera said maybe it was if you were only counting road games. But Rivera’s personal favorite is Carolina’s November 2015 home game against Indianapolis, when Gano had to make two field goals to win the game – first in overtime to tie it from 42 yards, and then from 52 to win it, 29-26.
Gano scored all the points for Carolina in its 9-3 victory over Buffalo and has kept it straight ever since. “Consistency with my snapper (J.J. Jansen) and my holder (Palardy) has really helped, too,” Gano said.
Of course, Gano will miss a big kick again. It might happen Sunday or it might happen in two months, because it happens to every NFL kicker at some point.
But Gano has been a “yes” 10 times in a row for Carolina this season. And for a team with a number of question marks, that’s no small thing.