Panther’ Tabor should stick around after special teams success

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Carolina Panthers kicker Eddie Pineiro (4) celebrates a field goal with teammate JJ Jansen (44) during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

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The Carolina PanthersThe tumultuous season of 2022 was a tumultuous up-and-down festival that led to firing Matt Ruhl, trade of Christian McCaffrey and the uncertainty of the organization in 2023.

But it wasn’t just about suffering and inconsistency.

Even before the interim head coach Steve Wilkes led the “Panthers” to a 6-6 finish, the wheels were lubricated by special teams. Chris Tabor, who was hired by Ruhl before last season, brought veterans to a unit that had struggled in previous years.

The Panthers are looking for a new head coach to run the organization, the owner David Tepper and the rest of the Carolina Brain Trust must recognize the prowess of Tabor and his treatment of candidates for retention. Tebor, who was the NFL’s leading special teams coordinator for 12 years, should be high on the list of potential holdovers from the previous regime for any coach who takes over at Bank of America Stadium.

Rich Gaslin, a veteran NFL reporter, has spent several years compiling special team rankings. In 2021, Gaslin ranked the Panthers 28th in the league based on several statistical categories, from penalties to field goal percentage to punts in the 20. Under the leadership of Tabor, the group increased to fourth place overall listed in 2022.

“Panthers” became the fourth in the overall ranking the highest score on the annual list since the group took second place in 2003. The team also finished second overall in 2000, but hasn’t finished in the top 10 since 2017.

The “Panthers” rating was helped by the leading kicker’s play in the league Eddie Piñeiro and the player Johnny Hecker.

Piñeiro – despite missing two potential game-winning attempts vs. Atlanta Falcons in Week 8 — Finished with a league-high 94.2% field goal percentage. Piñeiro was brought in to replace injured starting kicker Zane Gonzalez in August.

Tabor, who worked with Piñeiro in Chicago, recommended him for a tryout and eventually decided to add him as Gonzalez’s replacement. Even after a disastrous performance against Atlanta, Wilkes and Tabor stuck with Piñeiro. The kicker rewarded the coaches with 19 consecutive field goals.

“He understands me as a player, he understands my mindset,” Piñeiro said of Tabor in September.

Hecker, a four-time first-team All-Pro, signed with Carolina this offseason. He led the league and set a franchise record with 39 punts inside the 20-yard line. According to Gasselin, the league average in that category was 25.4 punts in the 20s.

Hekker also finished with a gross average of 48.5 yards per punt. His net yards per punt average was 44.2. According to Gasselin, the league averages for those categories were 46.74 yards and 41.47 yards, respectively.

Long meadow JJ Jansen, the team’s longest-tenured player, set the franchise mark for most games played in a career this season. Jansen is a joke called Tabor a “comedian” in an interview earlier this season — appeared in his 226th game as a Panther in the season finale against the New Orleans Saints.

Jansen is one of the clear leaders of the special teams unit. Given his history with the team and the NFL, Jansen knows what to look for in a strong coordinator, and Tabor, according to Jansen, fits that mold.

“(Tabar) is incredible (with) identifying players’ strengths and weaknesses,” Jansen said earlier this month. “He allows us to play to our strengths while protecting our weaknesses. He is also very good at identifying the strengths and weaknesses of our opponents and putting us in positions to win our individual matchups. He has an extraordinary sense of people.”

Tabor was able to greatly increase the production of the Panthers coverage units last season.

These groups were great at getting down on the field and playing. Sam Franklin, the team’s Pro Bowl voting candidate, finished 15th in the league with 13 special teams receptions. Safety Shawn Chandler was right behind him with 12 tackles.

This season in Carolina, Tabor launched an internal special teams ranking system, and Franklin displaced Hecker for the top spot.

“The Goggle Council — everybody took it seriously this year,” Franklin said earlier this month. “I feel like that was a big deal for us, as well as fighting for first downs and tackles and stuff like that. It means a lot.”

If Tabor were to return to Carolina under a new head coach, he would have room for improvement with the unit — namely the team’s notable penalty kill problem. The Panthers’ dominance in several categories was tempered at times by the unit’s tendency to rack up penalties.

The Panthers likely finished outside the top 3 in Gosselin’s overall rating because the group led the league with 23 penalties for 197 yards. The league average was 13.5 punts for 109.1 yards.

But while Tabor may need to clean up techniques and trends here and there, his unit has flourished after just one year of his leadership. With new coaches looking to assemble their staff, Tabor should be a worthy voice to keep around.

“(Tabar) has a great relationship with all the coaches on the staff and also brings a tremendous amount of camaraderie in the special teams meeting room,” Jansen said. “Guys want to be a part of special teams and dominate their role.”

Mike Kaye covers the Carolina Panthers for The Charlotte Observer. Kay previously covered the entire NFL for the Pro Football Network, the Philadelphia Eagles for NJ Advance Media and the Jacksonville Jaguars for First Coast News. He is a graduate of the University of North Florida.



Panther’ Tabor should stick around after special teams success

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