The Carolina Panthers’ whirlwind 2022 season was an up-and-down slogfest that led to the firing of Matt Rhule, the trading of Christian McCaffrey and the uncertainty of the organization in 2023.
But it wasn’t all about misery and inconsistency.
Even before interim head coach Steve Wilks led the Panthers to a 6-6 finish, the wheels were greased on special teams. Chris Tabor, who was hired by Rhule prior to last season, brought a veteran presence to a unit that struggled in previous years.
With the Panthers searching for a new head coach to run the organization, owner David Tepper and the rest of the Carolina brain trust should acknowledge Tabor’s prowess and standing with candidates for the sake of retention. Tabor, who has been a lead NFL special teams coordinator for 12 years, should be high on the list of potential holdovers from the previous regime for any coach who takes over the reins at Bank of America Stadium.
Rich Gosselin, a veteran NFL reporter, has been doing special teams rankings for several years. In 2021, Gosselin ranked the Panthers as the 28th overall group in the league based on several statistical categories — from penalties to field-goal percentage to punts downed inside the 20. Under Tabor’s stewardship, the group zoomed all way up to fourth overall on the list in 2022.
The fourth overall ranking was the Panthers’ highest mark on the annual list since the group finished second in 2003. The team also finished second overall in 2000 but hadn’t ranked within the top 10 since 2017.
The Panthers’ ranking was aided by the league-leading performances of kicker Eddy Piñeiro and punter Johnny Hekker.
Piñeiro — despite missing two potential game-winning attempts against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 8 — finished with a league-high field-goal conversion rate of 94.2%. Piñeiro was brought in to replace injured starting kicker Zane Gonzalez in August.
Tabor, who had worked with Piñeiro in Chicago, recommended him for a tryout and ultimately decided to add him as Gonzalez’s fill-in. Even after the disastrous performance against Atlanta, Wilks and Tabor stuck with Piñeiro. The kicker rewarded the coaches with 19 consecutive made field goals.
“He understands me as a player, he understands my mindset,” Piñeiro said about Tabor in September.
Hekker, a four-time first-team All-Pro, signed with Carolina this offseason. He led the league and set a franchise record with 39 punts downed within the 20-yard line. According to Gosselin, the league average in that category was 25.4 punts downed inside the 20.
Hekker also finished with an averaged 48.5 gross yards per punt. His net yards per punt average was 44.2. According to Gosselin, the league average for those categories was 46.74 yards and 41.47 yards, respectively.
Long snapper J.J. Jansen, the team’s longest-tenured player, set the franchise mark for most career games played this season. Jansen — who jokingly called Tabor a “comedian” in an interview earlier this season — appeared in his 226th game as a Panther in the season-finale win against the New Orleans Saints.
Jansen is one of the special teams unit’s outspoken leaders. Given his history with the team and the NFL, Jansen knows what to look for in a strong coordinator, and Tabor — according to Jansen — fits the mold.
“(Tabor) is incredible (with) identifying players’ strengths and weaknesses,” Jansen said earlier this month. “He allows us to play to our strengths while protecting our weaknesses. He also is very good at identifying our opponents’ strengths and weaknesses and putting us in positions to win our individual matchups. He has a tremendous sense of people.”
Tabor was able to greatly enhance the production of the Panthers’ coverage units this past season.
Those groups were excellent at getting down the field and making plays. Sam Franklin, the team’s chosen nominee for the Pro Bowl ballot, was tied for 15th in the league with 13 special teams tackles. Safety Sean Chandler was just behind him with 12 takedowns.
Tabor started an internal special teams ranking system this season in Carolina, and Franklin edged out Hekker for the top spot.
“The points production board — everybody took it serious this year,” Franklin said earlier this month. “I feel like it was a big deal among us, just like fighting for first ins, tackles and stuff like that. It means a lot.”
If Tabor were to return to Carolina under a new head coach, he’d have areas to improve with the unit — namely with the team’s notable penalty problem. The Panthers’ dominance in a handful of categories was mitigated, at times, by the unit’s tendency to pick up penalties.
The Panthers likely finished outside of the top 3 in Gosselin’s overall rankings because the group led the league with 23 penalties for 197 yards. The league average was 13.5 flags for 109.1 yards.
But while Tabor might need to clean up some technique and tendencies here and there, his unit thrived after just one year of his guidance. With new coaches looking to put together their staffs, Tabor should be a worthwhile voice to keep around.
“(Tabor) has a great rapport with all of the coaches on the staff, while also garnering a tremendous amount of camaraderie in the special teams meeting room,” Jansen said. “Guys want to be a part of special teams and dominate their role.”