Kickoff specialist Lloyd proves valuable

The HeraldJanuary 1, 2009 

CHARLOTTE -- You'll have to pardon Rhys Lloyd for not being overwhelmed. After all, the record he set last weekend isn't the kind you dream of when you're a kid, but he'll take it nonetheless.

The Panthers' kickoff specialist just finished an impressive regular season that justified the use of a roster spot.

His 30 touchbacks were the most by any kicker since the introduction of the "K-ball" in 1999, and helped the Panthers change the face of their special teams.

"It's a good achievement," he said. "It's the only record I could have broken this year. It's the only thing on my mind as far as goal for the season, other than making the Super Bowl, of course. It's not a big record, but it's the only one I could have broken, so it's a good feeling."

He was eight ahead of Rob Bironas, Sebastian Janikowski and Olindo Mare, and blew the previous K-ball mark out of the water.

The K-ball shortens kicks because the balls aren't allowed to be warmed up or worked over, as previous ones were. Legends of balls being placed in laundry dryers or being beaten vigorously before use are numerous.

"They don't get to work on the balls like they used to before the game and during the game," Lloyd said. "Back in the day you used to see them beat the heck out of the balls. You used to see them on the sidelines almost working them down with sandpaper, almost. The balls now are pretty much straight out of the wrapper and aren't always pumped up how they should be. And when cold weather starts affecting it, it's like cold weather on a tire, it starts affecting it pretty quick.

"The sweet spot goes and it's one thing after another. At that point it becomes just making sure you get a good strike on the ball."

Since it was introduced, no player had more than 24 touchbacks in a season (Mare in 2003 and 2006), and only 12 kickers got as many as 20 during that span.

The league initially moved kickoffs from the 35-yard line to the 30 in 1994, in hopes of generating more exciting returns. Since then, the high-water mark was 40 touchbacks by Mitch Berger in 1998. When the K-ball was introduced the next year, Berger managed just 13.

After finishing 19th in opponents' drive start average in 2007 (29.0), the Panthers made the bold move of keeping Lloyd as a specialist afterward. It paid off, as they were up to second in the league this year (24.7), with John Kasay's late out-of-boundser in New Orleans keeping them out of the top spot.

The Panthers had just four touchbacks last season, with three by Lloyd in the final week after he signed on Christmas Eve.

"Yeah, I was aware of last year's situation," he said. "And I'm just glad I helped out this year and hopefully we continue it throughout the rest of the playoffs."

• COMEBACK FROM WHAT? Quarterback Jake Delhomme tied for second in voting for NFL comeback player of the year, compiled by the Associated Press.

Miami quarterback Chad Pennington won, receiving 19 of 50 votes cast by a panel of national media members.

Delhomme and Tennessee quarterback Kerry Collins were next with six each. As impressive as Pennington's resuscitation of the Dolphins was, Delhomme did have that Tommy John surgery last year to worry about.

"He's done an outstanding job," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "He's really flown under the radar because of what the running game's done. But you've seen a difference between last year and this year -- having him and not having him. He's definitely our leader and the whole team revolves around him.

"Having him in the huddle every day, it puts a lot of confidence in what we do offensively."

• EXTRA POINT: The Panthers weren't completely snubbed Wednesday. Running back DeAngelo Williams was named NFC offensive player of the month. He had 560 yards and seven touchdowns during the month. He's the third player in franchise history to win offensive player of the month honors, along with wide receivers Patrick Jeffers (December 1999) and Steve Smith (October 2005). He's also the third straight Panther to win monthly honors, after linebacker Jon Beason and defensive end Julius Peppers took them home on the offensive side in October and November.

daringantt@carolina.rr.com

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