It may not be quite as significant as losing Cam Newton or Luke Kuechly, but the Carolina Panthers lost another link to their past during the last week.
The team released longtime kicker Graham Gano, leaving the Panthers with just four players on their roster from the team’s trip to Super Bowl 50 just four years ago.
Gano is the second-highest scorer in franchise history with 742 points over the last eight years. While with the team, he connected on the game-winning field goal against the Giants that stands as the second-longest in NFL history.
Gano has battled injury that has kept him off the field since late 2018, however, and the Panthers will go with former undrafted free agent Joey Slye, who set a team record last season and led the NFL with eight 50-plus yard field goals during his rookie year.
Slye was clearly the team’s kicker of the future, so the roster move essentially closed the door on the transition away from the 33-year-old Gano.
The team was also forced to make a move at punter after Michael Palardy tore an ACL in the offseason and will miss the 2020 season. Palardy took over the role during the 2016 season and is Carolina’s career and single-season leader in net punting average. The team brought in rookie free agent Joseph Charlton, who punted in college for South Carolina. At the moment, Charlton is the only punter on the Panthers’ roster.
Other than the moves at the two specialist positions, the opening of Panthers camp was relatively drama-free. While many teams saw close to five dozen players test positive for COVID-19, including Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback and former ECU Pirate Gardner Minshew, the Panthers have not had anyone placed on the COVID injured reserve list during the first week of players reporting.
The team has also dodged a large number of COVID opt-outs. Players have until later this week to make their final decision on whether or not to play this year, but as of press time, only two players on the Panthers’ roster have said they’re out for the year — undrafted rookie free agent linebacker Jordan Mack and last year’s fourth-round pick Christian Miller, who had two sacks as a rookie pass rusher.
As for the players who will see time on the field this year, Teddy Bridgewater spent his first week as the Panthers’ QB1, meeting with the media to discuss the transition.
Bridgewater shrugged off concerns over replacing franchise quarterback Cam Newton, looking back on his time backing up future Hall of Famer Drew Brees with the Saints — and going 5-0 as emergency starter for New Orleans last season — to help him in his new challenge.
“One of the biggest problems I had my first year in New Orleans was I wanted to be like Drew,” he said. “I had to do everything Drew did in order to have success like Drew. But eventually, I learned that Drew Brees is Drew Brees. I’m Teddy Bridgewater. Cam Newton is Cam Newton. I’m still Teddy Bridgewater.
“So I can’t go out there and try to be something that I’m not. I play the game the way I play it. I carry myself the way I carry myself, and I’m going to live and die by that.”
Bridgewater expects the new Carolina Panthers offense to be similar to the one he ran in New Orleans last season, although he promised that new offensive coordinator Joe Brady, formerly of national champion LSU, will add a few “new wrinkles.”
Brady and Bridgewater also worked together in New Orleans before Brady returned to the college ranks.
“We’re back reunited, and it’s great to see a familiar face,” Bridgewater said. “But it’s also great to see someone who actually taught me the system, and to be able to actually grow in the system, and continue to run it, and run it the way he sees it.”
Coach Matt Rhule and general manager Marty Hurney have both praised Bridgewater’s leadership as the offense goes through a major transition at a time when there was little-to-no in-person teaching going on in the pandemic-marred offseason.
“They told me from jump, ‘Hey, this is your team,’ and the guys will go as I go,” Bridgewater said of Hurney and Rhule. “Just being around the guys a couple days already, they’re feeding off my energy, and I’m feeding off their energy. So it definitely feels like my team.”