Graham Gano does not need anybody to tell him how important his job is at Super Bowl 50. But Cam Newton will remind him on Sunday all the same. For more than a year now, the Carolina Panthers quarterback has been teasing Gano, his team’s kicker, by jogging past before field goal attempts and whispering the words “just a little bit of pressure” in his ear.
It’s been a long journey to the Super Bowl for Gano. Born in Scotland, on a US navy base in Arbroath, Gano actually grew up playing the other kind of football, before transferring his skills to the gridiron as a teenager after his father had transferred back to the States. Despite speaking with an American accent, Gano considers himself to be Scottish, and will carry the Saltire before kickoff at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday.
“Most athletes in America say they’ll go to Disneyland when they win a championship,” he told the Daily Record late last year. “I’ll come home to Arbroath. My wife loves Scotland, and I want my kids to see my country. I’d love to come home and get a cup of tea with the Provost of Angus [the county in which Arbroath is located]. I might have to bring my mum along as she’d enjoy the tea much more than me.”
For now though, he’s got Newton’s “relaxing” teasing to contend with. “He’s been doing it, I think, since Cincinnati last year,” Gano told reporters in San Francisco this week. “We had a couple of game-tying kicks there [as we went to] overtime and stuff … I think he actually said it to me running out for one of the game-tying field goals. I was thinking: ‘What are you doing? I’m running out here to tie the game and you’re gonna say that to me?’”
Another player might have been knocked off their stride, but not Gano. He drilled one through the posts from 44 yards at the end of regulation, and then made another in overtime as Carolina battled to a 37-37 stalemate. Since then, Newton has made a point of repeating his mantra whenever the opportunity presents. At this point, Gano will even go so far as to say that “it kinda relaxes you”.
Certainly it does not seem to be doing any harm. This has been the most productive year of Gano’s career, his 146 points scored during the regular season ranking second only to the New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski. He has delivered when the pressure was at its most intense, making a pair of overtime field goals – the second from 52 yards – to defeat the Colts in week eight, before nailing a 43-yarder as time expired during a December victory over the Giants.
On top of which, Gano has been perfect so far in the playoffs. Such consistency looks all the more valuable in a year when Blair Walsh’s close-range misscost Minnesota a wildcard victory over Seattle, and even Gostkowski fluffed a critical extra point during the AFC Championship Game.
That a kicker could determine a team’s postseason fate is nothing new. The Panthers saw both sides of that particular coin during their previous trip to a Super Bowl, back in February 2004. They had tied up the scores against New England on a touchdown with less than two minutes remaining, only for John Kasay to drive the ensuing kickoff out-of-bounds. The Patriots, taking advantage of the short field this mistake granted them, quickly moved into range for a game-winning field goal by Adam Vinatieri.
But never has the position of kicker been more prominent than it is today. The league’s decision to move the snap for point-after-touchdown attempts back from the two-yard line to the 15 has almost trebled the number of meaningful kicks that a player like Gano must make. There were more missed extra points in the first two weeks of this season than in all of 2014.
“I wasn’t a fan at first,” Gano confessed when asked about the change. “I don’t think anybody is a big fan of something that makes your job harder. But it makes guys who can do it more valuable, so I’m in favour of it now.”
Gano converted 56 of his 59 extra points during the regular season, along with 30 of 36 field goals, but five of the combined nine failures were blocked rather than missed. He is adamant now that, “We’ve fixed that [issue], we’ve corrected the mistakes. I’ve made 94% without the blocks, so I feel like it’s been a great year.”
It is a characteristically optimistic assertion from a man who told the Charlotte Observer back in September that he would “feel comfortable” about attempting a field goal from 65-75 yards. Gano’s career long is 52, while the NFL record, held by Matt Prater, stands at 64.
The boast might not be unjustified. Gano has made kicks from 70 yards in practice, and his leg strength is illustrated by the fact that he led the league in touchback percentage in both 2013 and 2014. He is, in fact, an impressive all-around athlete: one who starred in track events at high school – he had a personal best of 10.55 in high school – and who believes he could still run a 40-yard dash in something close to 4.5 seconds.
Gano has spoken before of his desire to follow in the footsteps of Scottish compatriot and fellow kicker Lawrence Tynes – who won two Super Bowls with the Giants. But for now he is not getting ahead of himself. More than the possibility of a game-winning field goal, he claims to have been fixated on the possibility that he might be the person who gets Sunday’s title game underway.
“I hope we get to kick off first,” he said. “I’ve already thought about that. You always see the cameras flashing. I think that’d be a pretty neat memory to have.”
Even if also one that comes with just a little bit of pressure attached.