CHARLOTTE — Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s coming-out party in the desert was crashed by another rookie enjoying his own “Hello, World” moment.
Patrick Peterson’s 89-yard punt return for a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter of the 2011 season opener spoiled Newton’s record-setting passing debut and lifted Arizona to a 28-21 win at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Two years later, with the Panthers preparing to play at Arizona again, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he knows a lot more about Peterson – and his own punt team – this time around.
“I think the big thing is personnel, and understanding what we’re doing here a little bit better. That was our opener. This one’s different,” Rivera said. “We know our guys a little bit more. And people know Patrick a little bit more. He’s a dynamic football player. For all the things they do with him, that’s probably one of the more scary ones.”
The Panthers have a new special teams coordinator and only two members of the punt team remaining from their opening-week roster in 2011 – long-snapper J.J. Jansen and backup linebacker Jordan Senn.
Peterson’s return was a sign of things to come for both Peterson, the fifth overall pick from LSU in ’11, and the Panthers’ punt team.
Peterson, a cornerback who also has taken snaps on offense this season, tied an NFL season-single season record in ’11 with four punt returns for touchdowns. He matched a mark held by three other players, including the Bears’ Devin Hester.
Meanwhile, the Panthers allowed two more punt returns for touchdowns that season – a 69-yarder by Hester and a 79-yarder by Tennessee’s Marc Mariani. All three came in Panthers’ losses.
A day after Denver’s Trindon Holliday returned a punt for a 76-yard touchdown last season against the Panthers – another Carolina loss – Rivera fired special teams coordinator Brian Murphy.
He replaced him with assistant special teams coach Richard Rodgers, Rivera’s teammate at Cal who, according to Panthers’ special teams players, allows them to play with more abandon than Murphy.
“I think guys feel like they can take a risk to make a play. I think that’s the biggest thing, not so restricted,” said Senn, a special teams mainstay since 2009. “In our special teams group, I think it’s an understanding of you’ve got to follow the rules, but sometimes you’ve just got to be a football player.”
Rodgers, who is assisted by longtime NFL special teams coach Bruce DeHaven, wants his coverage team to err on the side of aggression.
“I’m the kind of guy who wants guys to go down and make plays, and I don’t think you can be afraid to do that,” Rodgers said. “Sometimes as coaches we get to a point where we’re so determined to get our point across and we get our players to be robotic, and we don’t want that. ... We just want you to go make the tackle.”