SPARTANBURG — There are two ways this season could go for Graham Gano, the third Carolina Panthers kicker to attempt to replace John Kasay in the past two years.
There’s the “Oh yes, Gano!” way. Gano truly has the leg to break one of the NFL’s longest-standing records – the 63-yard field goal record first set in 1970 by New Orleans kicker Tom Dempsey and later tied by three others. Gano made a 63-yarder at the Panthers’ Fan Fest on Saturday. He once hit from 75 yards in practice at high altitude in Denver.
Then there’s the “Oh no, Gano!” way. In that scenario, Gano gets fired at some point over the next few weeks or months after missing a couple of clutch kicks. There is precedent. Gano has been released twice before in his NFL career, and the Panthers have shown that they will use a quick hook on a kicker who misses a couple of big ones (Olindo Mare and Justin Medlock, anyone? Anyone?)
The Panthers open their preseason Friday night at 8 at home vs. Chicago. Gano (pronounced guh-KNOW) will split the placekicking and kickoff chores with undrafted rookie free agent Morgan Lineberry. He will need to beat out Lineberry this August – which he is favored to do – and then need to be near-perfect, as he sees it, on field goals of less than 50 yards through the entire season.
I ask Gano Thursday: “How many kicks do you need to make to have complete job security as a kicker?”
“All of them,” Gano said.
Gano is a pleasant person and a tape-measure home run sort of kicker. He actually hit a 70-yarder in high school in Florida but then had it nullified because his own coach accepted an offsides penalty on the other team and took a first down rather than the three points.
“The Lord blessed me with a strong leg,” he said. On the 63-yarder Saturday at Fan Fest, he said he never even looked up to watch it go in – just slapped hands with holder Brad Nortman and walked off the field. He would like to try a 64-yarder at some point in an NFL game to set the record, but knows the conditions would have to be just right. Rivera said he may let Gano try from around 65 yards this season if the opportunity comes at the end of a half.
But Gano – who kicked, punted and met his softball-star wife at Florida State – also can be inconsistent. He missed what could have been a critical extra point in his very first Panthers game (Carolina won anyway). While kicking for Washington in 2010 and 2011 he had one of the lowest accuracy percentages in the NFL at 72.3 percent.
“Early on in my career,” Gano said, “I tried to crush the ball every time. I’ve worked on trying to control that and really work on consistency.”
For Carolina, Gano was 9-for-11 in his six games last season, making 81.8 percent of his field goals. That almost exactly translates into Kasay’s career percentage. That sort of percentage in 2013 would be fine with the Panthers – as long as he makes all the big ones.
Gano, 26, won what was basically a kicking game of H-O-R-S-E in November 2012 to get the Panthers job, competing against former San Diego kicker Nate Kaeding.
Because he had coached at San Diego, Rivera was more familiar with Kaeding. But he couldn’t ignore how good Gano was that day. Over and over, the two made field goals until the distance reached 50-plus yards. Let Rivera tell the rest.
“The topper was when Nate made a 58-yarder,” Rivera said. “Then Graham made it from 58. Then Graham went to 63 yards and just buried it. Nate hit the crossbar. Just short.”
Rivera calls Gano a “typical, quirky kicker.” Gano isn’t buying that.
“I completely disagree,” he said with a laugh. “I’m not going to disagree with coach on much, but I will on that. I’m pretty normal. I get in the weight room, go right along with the guys – try not to be weird I guess. You don’t want to be ‘that guy.’ "
Not unless that guy is winning games with field goals. That’s what Gano must do this season. Whether the winning field goal is from 54 or 24 yards, he can’t miss.
“I think his leash is a good-sized one just because of his leg strength and the consistency he had last year,” Rivera said. That was important for his confidence – and for our confidence in him. We’ll see, though. We expect him to be consistent.”
If he is consistent, Gano might kick in Charlotte for the Panthers for the next 10 years.
If he’s not… well, you know. And Gano? He knows, too.
Scott Fowler: email@example.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler