Carolina Panthers

Special teams lone highlight in preseason melee

CHARLOTTE -- There wasn't much Carolina Panthers coach John Fox could find to praise after last week's demolition at Philadelphia, but without being prompted, he mentioned one thing in particular.

"I thought our special teams got better," he said.

That group came back from a less-than-stellar showing the week before (nearly the only mark on their preseason opener at the N.Y. Giants), the first shot to see a rebuilt unit.

The Panthers are in the midst of a special teams makeover after finishing last in the league in kickoff and punt returns, which coincides with their youth movement. They were also 22nd in the special teams rankings compiled by Rick Gosselin of The Dallas Morning News, a trusted indicator of success.

The Panthers lost a considerable chunk of their past special teams corps this offseason, when linebacker Vinny Ciurciu signed with Minnesota and veterans Karl Hankton and Kevin McCadam were released as the team tried to get younger.

Those three took with them 52 of the team's 143 special teams tackles from 2006 (36.4 percent), creating a challenge. Hankton remains the franchise's all-time leader in special teams tackles and had been the special teams captain the last five years, so there's a leadership void, as well.

Special teams coach Danny Crossman said that represented a seismic shift for his group, but took comfort he had guys such as Nick Goings remaining, as he tries to fit together an ever-changing cast into a cohesive unit.

Hankton was a wide-open, aggressive type who wasn't afraid to bark at his guys. Goings barely says anything, and he grinned Wednesday when asked about the difference between himself and the player known in the locker room as "The Big Bang."

"Yeah, definitely. He's a vocal leader, a fiery guy," Goings said. "I'm more of a lead-by-example and work-hard type. But that's just how I do it."

Crossman said the message is getting across either way. He can see Goings evolving into a leader.

"It may be a little bit in a different way," Crossman said. "A guy like Nick Goings has always had the utmost respect of the guys in the locker room. He's not as vocal and isn't going to be that kind of a leader, but he's a guy in his own way that has kind of taken on some of that role.

"You have to be exact and precise in what you're doing, and when you are, guys will follow you."

The quandary for Crossman is how to use Goings, the seventh-year running back. He's usually part of the front line of blockers on kickoff returns, but he was the team's best returner in 2006 (averaging 24.2 per game).

The hope was fourth-round pick Ryne Robinson would handle punt and kick returns, but he struggled on kickoffs against the Giants, and Crossman sent the reliable Goings out with the first group in the second game. Goings might not pop one for 80 yards, but he's probably not going to get 10.

"There's something to be said for that," Crossman said. "And that's why he's been able to stick around; whatever he's been asked to do, he's done very well.

"If you can find people in the back end to allow him to play in the front, that's the ideal thing. You don't want to weaken yourself at two spots. But we know that's an option we have and that we can be successful with that."

Goings, who surprised as an offensive option in 2004 (with five 100-yard games in a six-week span), said he prefers having the ball in his hands, but he learned early in his career from Hankton and Michael Bates the importance of having a grasp of the entire concept.

"I've been playing up front since I've been here, and if I need to go back there I will," he said. "I know that down-pat, but I like returning kicks too. From day one.

"I feel like every year I get better and better at returning, though. I feel great doing it, love doing it."

Kickoff returns are just one part of Crossman's challenge, and putting together the coverage units has been similarly tough. He was hampered in training camp by the spate of injuries to safeties and linebackers (since the backups make up the bulk of his crew), and the groups he put out against the Giants looked very different the following week.

They also suffered a setback when Terrence Melton was lost for the year to a knee injury, as he figured heavily into Crossman's plans.

But against the Eagles, when things showed promise, he used more guys who could be regulars this year, players like linebackers Adam Seward, Brandon Jamison, James Anderson and rookie Tim Shaw along with defensive backs Richard Marshall, Christian Morton and Deke Cooper and Goings.

"Because of the injuries and some new acquisitions and guys moving on, you don't have as good a feel as you did in the past," Crossman said. "But I think if we have some good depth at positions, it'll shake itself out like always. I think we've got a shot to be OK in terms of personnel."