CHARLOTTE -- Carolina Panthers punter Jason Baker was standing near his locker recently, with a few reporters lingering nearby, probably waiting for the quarterback who resides a few stalls down. Over his shoulder, Baker grinned and said: "Do you guys need me? Because if you guys are looking for me, it's probably not good."
This was even before he had his third punt of the year blocked last week in Tampa Bay, and he's exactly right.
While the Panthers' near-inability to get a punt off is hard to grasp (their three matches the rest of the league's total), the phenomenon masks some subtle but significant improvements in the kicking game in recent years.
With the addition of strong-legged specialist Rhys Lloyd, kickoffs are no longer an embarrassment. Last year, they led the league in kickoffs out of bounds (which give the opponent the ball at the 40-yard line) and were last in touchbacks before Lloyd came in and got two in the final game to get them to 29th. Now, their opponent's drive start average has gone from the 29.0 to the 23.2, a 6-yard difference that doesn't sound big but the defense is thankful for.
Likewise, they've added 5 yards to their punt return average over the last two seasons (4.6 yards per and last in 2006, 9.6 for 19th this year), with newcomer Mark Jones proving to be more than acceptable in that area. Kickoff returns have also improved, with rookie running back Jonathan Stewart and Jones showing some spark they've lacked -- they were 31st in kickoff returns in 2007, last in 2006.
They've also moved from 24th in the league in punt coverage a year ago (allowing 10.5 yards per) to sixth (6.1), a testament to the punt team's ability to get downfield when one isn't blocked.
That's why the breakdowns have been so frustrating, because the Panthers' regular units have played better at times this year, and the special-teamers feel a burden not to let them down.
"It's disappointing," core special-teamer Adam Seward said. "From a defensive standpoint, those guys work so hard to keep points off the board, and when special teams allow points, it's got to be frustrating going on the field, looking at the scoreboard and seeing points they didn't give up. And then offensively, we can help the offense by helping give them field position.
"We've had some tough breaks the last few games, but overall, I think we've been a great special teams unit, and I think we'll get it corrected."
Veteran special-teamer Dante Wesley laughed and shook his head about the added scrutiny, echoing Baker's preference to be anonymous.
"Everything's fine until you get a big play -- and we've had a few of those," Wesley said. "Whenever it goes bad, it's always obvious and looked at. The last couple of weeks, we've made mistakes on the punt team. We know that. That's going to happen. We've got to get better. I think the rest of special teams have improved, and I think we've improved on punt, it's just certain plays caught us at times."
The Panthers have taken seriously the need to get better in the kicking game, at least by virtue of their personnel. While injuries in starting units can make a mess of what special teams coach Danny Crossman has to work with, the Panthers insulated him a bit this year by keeping several guys whose primary responsibility comes in the kicking game. Players such as Wesley, Nick Goings and Donte Curry are here primarily because they lend ballast to the generally young units made up mostly of backup linebackers, defensive backs and tight ends.
"There's a lot of experience out there," Wesley said. "Guys know how to play, guys know their roles. That's the main part of it. If you have guys that know their roles, they're going to play great."
They haven't on the punt team, though. The first block came when former special teams captain Goings missed a block. The second was when Baker dropped a snap. The third came when tight end Dante Rosario misread a coverage, allowing Tampa linebacker Geno Hayes to roar in cleanly (though protector Landon Johnson missed his opportunity to clean up the mess).
The members of the punt team know that puts the red bull's-eye on their chests.
The work begins early each day. When the Panthers arrive at Bank of America Stadium in the pre-dawn hours, their first meeting each day is with Crossman, who'll spend an hour or more going over the week's plan and breaking down film. While fullback Brad Hoover said the ratio of offensive and defensive practice and meeting time to special teams is around 3-to-1, the guys on those units generally do their share of homework, taking home film to watch later. And what he's learned in meetings recently is that the punt problems aren't ones that can't be corrected with a few tweaks.
"It's just a focal point to you guys," Hoover said of the increased attention they're getting. "Honestly, it really hasn't changed anything -- guys have assignments, there's a breakdown here and there. It's not like it's non-correctable. It's just about getting it done. We just have to keep moving."
They have this week. They haven't spent any more time in practice on the punting game than normal, and aside from a few anticipated personnel shifts, the punt team isn't going to look much different when they face New Orleans return man Reggie Bush -- who returned two for touchdowns against Minnesota.
"We've faced good ones before," Goings said flatly, noting the job they did containing Chicago's Devin Hester. "That doesn't change anything."
Crossman wasn't made available for interviews last week, but coach John Fox has taken the recent issues in stride, and laughed last week when asked if he was pleased by what he saw from his punt team in practice.
"Yeah, but I can honestly say that I was happy the other weeks, too," Fox said. "It's like trying to predict the future. If I could do that, I'd probably be at the racetrack. But you don't know. You prepare, and, hopefully, you do well."