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It’s starting to look like this Carolina Panthers placekicker is more than just a placeholder.
After a somewhat rocky start, Zane Gonzalez has provided steadiness in a spot where the Panthers badly needed stability. He has now kicked for Carolina for a solid month entering Sunday’s 1 p.m. home game against Minnesota, and in that time his kickoffs have gotten better and his field goals have gotten more accurate.
Kicking in the NFL is always a week-to-week business, and Gonzalez came to terms with that lack of job security a long time ago.
But it appears that Gonzalez isn’t just a guy sitting next to you on a plane who you’ll never see again after today. He’s made every field-goal attempt he’s tried under 50 yards (5 for 5) for the Panthers and is 10 for 11 on extra points. The Panthers like Gonzalez enough that, when they had to replace their injured punter this week, they picked someone in Ryan Winslow, who had held for Gonzalez previously.
They want for Gonzalez to be able to continue on his positive trajectory, and they really want him to win a game for them in the fourth quarter sometime soon.
I had a one-on-one interview with Gonzalez this week and came away impressed with his honesty and sense of purpose. Here are four things I learned from him.
Gonzalez loved soccer first
Gonzalez grew up mostly in Deer Park, Texas, raised along with his older brother and his younger sister by his Dad, Joseph Gonzalez. “He was Mr. Dad, Mr. Mom, everything,” Gonzalez said of his father.
For both Gonzalez and his older brother, their first love was soccer. Zane Gonzalez was a striker in high school who had two straight 30-goal seasons. However, he also kicked for the football team, and his shot at a scholarship was better in that sport. And he needed that scholarship, ultimately provided by Arizona State.
“I had no money to go to college, so football paid for school,” Gonzalez said. “So that was a pretty easy decision.”
Still, Gonzalez is an enormous soccer fan, with Chelsea F.C. in London his favorite team. He follows Chelsea’s progress avidly and has taken trips to Europe in five of the past six years — missing only the travel-restricted year of 2020 — to watch professional soccer.
The NFL? It can be tough
Although he’s only 26, the Panthers are already Gonzalez’s fourth NFL employer. He started off in Cleveland in 2017, where he was a seventh-round draft pick. He had his best years in Arizona from 2018-2020 but was released before the 2021 season. He was lingering on Detroit’s practice squad when the Panthers signed him in September.
The NFL, as Gonzalez noted, “can be a cold-blooded world.”
When asked how he coped with such tenuous job security, Gonzalez said: “Just trust in yourself. I think it’s all about self-confidence. ... Trust in the process, trust in your talent. No matter what happens, at the end of the day, you’re still going to be a regular guy. You’re still going to have a family. You’re still going to survive.”
Coming to terms with OCD
Although he doesn’t advertise it, Gonzalez also doesn’t shy away from the fact that he has struggled with managing what he describes as an obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) throughout his life.
Said Gonzalez: “It affected me a lot more as a young kid. ... It’s just little thoughts, little funny habits that I do.”
Gonzalez said he didn’t want to get too much in depth about his OCD but did offer one current example and a bit more explanation in our interview.
“I’ve done a lot of research on it,” Gonzalez said of OCD. “Specifically, sometimes I rinse my hands before kicks. ... And I was kind of curious about that. But that’s one of the most common things that people with OCD do. It instantly makes you just feel relieved. I don’t know why, if it’s just a placebo effect. It’s not something I love having. But it just is what it is, and I’ve learned to deal with it.”
Changing a kickoff approach
At Arizona, Gonzalez used a very specific — and short — kickoff approach. He backed up 5.5 yards, took four steps to the left and then kicked off.
When he got to Carolina, Gonzalez was trying the same thing. But his kickoffs weren’t high enough, nor were they deep enough.
“We asked him to work on some things and go back to the longer approach,” said Chase Blackburn, the Panthers’ special teams coordinator. “And in a short amount of time, he was able to do it.”
Now Gonzalez backs up 11.5 yards and moves five steps to his left, basically doubling the length of his approach.
“I feel like I’m standing back there myself,” Gonzalez joked. But his touchback percentage has improved to 47.6% for the season, and the Panthers have been pleased with the recent results.
Blackburn also noted that Gonzalez has missed “maybe one kick” over the past three weeks of practice.
In real games, Gonzalez missed an extra point and had a 50-yard field goal blocked in his first game as a Panther in Week 2. He has made everything since except for a 54-yarder against Dallas. He connected on field goals of 43, 48 and 50 yards against Philadelphia last week without a miss.
“Because of his professionalism, the way he attacks meetings, his attentiveness and his personality, he has a tendency to draw the team to him,” Blackburn said of Gonzalez. “That helps the confidence.”
What would help it more is making a game-winning field goal. On a team that has already employed Joey Slye and Ryan Santoso as kickers this year, Gonzalez wants to have some staying power. The only way to do that is to keep making kicks.
“I know bad days will happen,” Gonzalez said. “It’s all about how you respond when you get knocked down. It’s kind of a direct correlation with kicking, really. You just learn to keep your head down and keep working.”