Adversity, Panthers patience set stage for Graham Gano's big moment

Panthers kicker Graham Gano's 63-yard field goal Sunday against the Giants tied the record for the longest winning kick in NFL history. Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Flash back to last year's preseason opener for the Carolina Panthers. Graham Gano missed a 50-yard field goal attempt that ricocheted off the left upright and rookie Harrison Butker drained a 51-yarder.

Flash back even further to the 2016 finale when Gano missed three field goals in a 17-16 loss to Tampa Bay that convinced then-general manager Dave Gettleman to spend a seventh-round pick on Butker.

Flash back even further to the 2016 opener when Gano missed a 50-yard field goal in the final seconds of a 21-20 loss at Denver, a rematch of Super Bowl 50.

The stage was set for the Panthers to move on from Gano in favor of Butker, the strong-legged kicker from Georgia Tech. That Gano was to count $4 million against the 2017 salary cap while Butker was in the first year of a three-year deal that would count $382,941 seemed to make this a no-brainer.

Social media was buzzing that "Gano must go."

Now flash forward to Sunday's game against the New York Giants. Gano calmly drilled a 63-yarder with one second remaining that gave Carolina a 33-31 victory and tied the NFL record for the longest game-winning kick.

The kick turned a potentially devastating home loss after Carolina blew an 11-point fourth-quarter lead into a 3-1 start. It started a celebration that quarterback Cam Newton called "as close to any playoff game that we've played."

In a league that saw Dallas cut the most accurate kicker (Dan Bailey) in team history for salary-cap reasons prior to Week 1 and Minnesota and Cleveland release kickers after Week 1, the Panthers stood by Gano.

"We have to learn to be patient," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. "Now there is a certain time you have to draw the line, but we have to learn to be patient. Patience has paid off for us."

To Gano's credit, he never lost faith in himself during the tough misses or when his job was threatened by Butker, whose 38 field goals for the Kansas City Chiefs last season set an NFL record for the most made by a rookie.

If anything, being challenged strengthened Gano as a player.

"At first, it was interesting having him here," Gano said. "By the end we were good buds. Every time he stepped on the field, I hoped he made every kick. It's exciting watching him have success in Kansas City.

"He helped make me a better kicker. I learned a lot and got a lot better competing with him."

Butker, after signing with the Chiefs, said he feels the same toward Gano. "I think technique-wise I learned a lot about being smooth, being very calm and collected."

The competition with Butker also strengthened Carolina's belief in Gano, who a year ago made the Pro Bowl and kicked a 58-yard field goal against New Orleans that tied Pete Stoyanovich for the longest kick in NFL postseason play.

The team rewarded Gano with a four-year, $17 million deal in March that included $9 million guaranteed.

"Just glad to be here and feel very blessed," Gano said.

Release by Redskins a blessing

Flash back to the week before the 2012 opener, when Gano was released by the Washington Redskins in favor of Billy Cundiff.

The Redskins, who face Carolina (3-1) on Sunday at FedEx field (1 p.m., Fox), are on their fifth kicker since making that move. Since then, heading into Washington's Monday night game against New Orleans, those kickers have made 83.6 percent of their field goals.

Gano has made 85.1 percent.

Nick Rose, who kicked in eight games for the Redskins last season, was Washington's 22nd kicker in the past 24 years. More than half of the NFL's 32 teams had used fewer than 11 during that span.

The Panthers have had only nine kickers four games into their 24th season. Six of those were brought in when John Kasay, the team’s all-time leading kicker and a member of the original Carolina team in 1995, suffered injuries during his run from 1995 to 2010.

Again, patience.

Not that Gano totally can blame Washington for releasing him. He made 31 of 41 field goal attempts in his final season with the Redskins, with an NFL-high five tries blocked.

"A lot of it for me was blocks," Gano recalled. "I had hit like my last 11 out of 12 before they released me. I don't know what happened up there, but it was a blessing for me because I ended up coming here and it's been a lot of fun here. It's been interesting how things work out."

Never a debate

Flash back again to the missed field goal in last year's preseason opener. It was that miss that ultimately helped convince the Panthers to keep Gano.

"He was just so confident," Rivera said. "He kicked that ball with such an attitude. That's why we kept him."

Special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn said Gano always has enjoyed challenges.

"All those things he's been through has helped push him," Blackburn said. "Having Harrison here last year, the competition of it, made [Gano] a better, stronger kicker. More mentally tough. He's always been mentally tough. The fact he's been pushed a little farther, it's good for him. He thrives in it."

Gano thrives on showing off his leg strength. He was successful on field goals of 64 and 65 yards at J.M. Tate High in Cantonment, Florida. He had a 71-yarder negated by a penalty.

Gano also thrives on the thrill of kicking a game-winner, even though you never would know it by his soft-spoken demeanor.

"It's kind of what you live for," Gano said. "I remember choosing if I wanted to be a punter or a kicker and move forward with it. The reason I chose a kicker was these kind of moments."

Gano actually punted his first two seasons at Florida State before the Seminoles made him their kicker during his senior year. He made 24 of 26 attempts and 33 of 34 extra point attempts in 2008, which got him signed by Baltimore as an undrafted free agent.

That didn't work out as the Ravens went with Steve Hauschka, so Gano went to the Las Vegas Locomotives of the United Football League, where he led the league in scoring and field goals made.

That landed Gano in Washington, where his confidence wasn't shot when things didn't work out there.

"I was young," said Gano, now 31. "I'd only kicked one year in college before kicking as a pro. It took some learning experiences. I'm thankful for that time. Without that adversity I wouldn't be where I am today."