The crowd at Bank of America Stadium let out a groan.
Carolina kicker Zane Gonzalez probably sighed, too, when he sent a fourth-quarter extra point wide left Sunday.
It wasn’t that the miss was momentous: By that point, the Panthers had all but wrapped up their 26-7 win over the demoralized Saints.
It was, instead, that the miss was the latest in a string of kicking woes for the Panthers (2-0).
“I thought all day, our field goal protection wasn’t very good,” Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said postgame. He added that he called a timeout before the last field goal to emphasize to the offensive line that the Saints are “swimming them” (a reference to a block evasion technique).
“I do know this, even on the one we missed on the extra point, there’s too much in the kicker’s face, pressure-wise. We have to get that corrected because it was apparent to me on the field.”
On Sunday, the Panthers’ kicking game was particularly abysmal: A week after releasing Week 1 starter Ryan Santoso and signing Gonzalez from the Detroit Lions practice squad, the Panthers saw a missed extra point (for a second-straight week), a blocked field goal attempt and no touchbacks in six kickoffs.
“You can’t get a field goal blocked and run back,” Rhule said. “That just can’t happen in the National Football League.”
The less-than-stellar performance in the kicking game — the only obvious negative for the Panthers on Sunday — can be shrugged off now, overshadowed by an offense with a healthy superstar in running back Christian McCaffrey, a competent quarterback in Sam Darnold and a dominant defense.
It’s even a bit laughable, considering that the Panthers have had three kickers in as many games and where the Panthers’ previous kickers have landed:
▪ Graham Gano, a veteran who arrived in Carolina midway through the 2012 season and was let go by the team in July 2020, is now the starter for the New York Giants and is 5 for 5 on field goals this season, including two kicks from 50-plus yards.
▪ Joey Slye, who beat out Gano for the starter’s job but missed four kicks in the 2021 preseason and was cut before Week 1, is now the starter for the Houston Texans and is 3 for 4 on field goals this season. (The Texans host the Panthers on Thursday.)
But inconsequential as it may be now, Rhule made it clear that the performance could be impactful in the future. The Panthers have committed to paying Gonzalez for at least three weeks and have two tough matchups after the Texans in the Cowboys (in Dallas on Oct. 3) and in the Eagles (at home Oct. 10).
“We just gotta be really honest about what we’re doing well and not doing well,” Rhule said, addressing how the team could improve going into a short week.
“It’s boring,” Rhule added before listing off a few more coaching cliches.
But the kicking game, too, is boring. Until it isn’t.
And then it could hurt.