Last Sunday at Bank of America Stadium, Carolina Panthers kicker Eddy Piñeiro Jr. and special teams coordinator Chris Tabor glanced at each other during warmups ahead of a 26-16 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
Hurricane Ian’s aftereffects had created crosswinds in Uptown Charlotte, and the specialist and coordinator knew that the afternoon wouldn’t be an easy one for field-goal attempts.
But the duo had worked together in Chicago with the Bears for two seasons, and Tabor knew that Piñeiro could handle the elements.
“I go, ‘Hey kid,’ — I said, ‘This is nothing (compared) to what you’ve kicked in,’ ” Tabor told The Observer in a phone conversation on Wednesday. “I said, ‘All that kicking in the wind, that’ll come in handy today.’ ”
Tabor was right. Piñeiro had battled the brutal winds of Chicago and New Jersey during his NFL travels. He had fought the worst elements that the NFL had to offer before arriving in Carolina as an injury replacement for Zane Gonzalez in August.
That’s why Piñeiro didn’t shrink under pressure when he was asked to attempt a 54-yard field goal ahead of halftime, with wind surging through the stadium. Piñeiro split the uprights for an eighth consecutive attempt to start his Panthers tenure.
The successful attempt was also the longest made field goal of Piñeiro’s five-year career.
“Last game was super, super windy with the hurricane,” Piñeiro said. “It was very windy and to be able to hit that 54-yarder — my career long — I think it got me ready for that moment, kicking in Chicago and New York in December. It got me ready for that moment.”
Piñeiro’s NFL journey hasn’t been a breeze. He’s played for six teams, been injured multiple times and has failed to find a long-term home as a nomad specialist. But so far this season, he’s been one of the few bright spots during Carolina’s sluggish 1-3 start.
The Observer spoke with Piñeiro, his fellow specialists and his coaches to get an understanding of why the sixth team might be the charm for the 27-year-old kicker.
A reunion in Uptown
In 2019, the Bears were coming off a 12-4 season. Chicago had hosted a playoff game against the defending Super Bowl champions, the Philadelphia Eagles, in the wild-card round in January, but were upset after kicker Cody Parkey’s game-ending missed field-goal attempt became the stuff of franchise infamy.
The “double-doink” loss led to Parkey being chased out of town. The Bears felt like a kicker, of all things, was the missing piece to a quick rebound. So, they staged a kicking competition that became the obsession of Chicago media.
Tabor, then the Bears’ special teams coordinator, oversaw a battle between Piñeiro and Elliott Fry. The Bears had traded a conditional seventh-round pick for Piñeiro after he spent his entire 2018 rookie season on the Raiders’ injured reserve list.
Piñeiro beat out Fry for the job, earning Tabor’s admiration in the process.
“The scrutiny that those two went through really told me a lot about both of those guys, cause they both handled it like champions,” Tabor said. “But watching (Piñeiro) go through that process developmentally and how tough he had to be to go through that, you’re talking about a big media market that’s watching every single kick — instead of charting quarterback pass completions, you’re charting who’s making kicks in training camp — and they’re fighting for a job. Then to watch him, he did pretty well for us that year.”
Piñeiro went 23 for 28 on field-goal attempts during his first season in Chicago, but a groin injury derailed his momentum in 2020. He ended up on injured reserve and was replaced by former Kansas City Chiefs kicker Cairo Santos, who had a major bounce-back year. Santos signed a long-term extension, and Piñeiro was forced to find work elsewhere.
Despite being one-upped by Santos, Piñeiro still had Tabor’s attention as he bounced from Indianapolis to Washington to New York.
“When Eddy went to those other teams — went to the Jets and whatnot — I followed him, I’ve always followed him,” Tabor said. “I think he’s been persistent.”
After failing to appear in a game in 2020 and most of 2021, Piñeiro was signed by the Jets in December of last year. Piñeiro appeared in five games and made all eight of his field-goal attempts.
Despite that success, the Jets decided to stage a competition this offseason between Piñeiro and veteran Greg Zuerlein. Piñeiro said he battled back spasms during the summer, and Zuerlein beat him out in the head-to-head battle.
Piñeiro was once again jobless in August.
“I stopped kicking for a little bit, just to give my body some rest,” Piñeiro said.
The Panthers lost Gonzalez to a quad injury in the final game of the preseason and immediately looked for replacements. Following a tryout that involved a handful of kickers, Tabor chose Piñeiro over the rest of the field.
While Tabor was happy to reunite with Piñeiro, their background together wasn’t the reason the Panthers picked him as their kicker.
“I think it helps, but it wasn’t a deciding factor,” Tabor said. “I knew when Zane was down that we wanted to bring in a bunch of guys and let them compete. And having a background with him helps from the standpoint of, you know what’s underneath the hood.”
Piñeiro, who has failed to find a sense of normalcy in the NFL, was excited by the opportunity to work under his former coach.
“He understands me as a player, he understands my mindset,” Piñeiro said. “A really good coach and I’m so happy to be back with him here.”
Making a specialist special
On every field goal, there are several wheels in motion. From the blocking to the long snap to the hold to the kick, the mechanics of the play are a team effort.
Luckily for Piñeiro, he has a pair of established veterans as his long snapper and holder.
Long snapper J.J Jansen, the longest-tenured player on the Panthers’ roster, has been in the NFL for 15 seasons. Punter Johnny Hekker, Piñeiro’s holder, is a four-time first-team All-Pro in his 11th season.
“They’ve made it easier for me,” Piñeiro said. “Johnny, with the holds, he’s as good as it gets. Just two veteran guys who have really been able to help me out.”
Hekker, who won a Super Bowl with the Los Angeles Rams in February, compares himself to a golf caddie when talking about his role as a holder. Hekker said Piñeiro and him have an open dialogue when it comes to the different aspects of field-goal technique, and that has made a difference early on.
“The good thing is he’s not afraid to tell me when he wants something done differently,” Hekker said. “At the end of the day, we can’t be operating at our best if we’re not communicating at that level.”
With Hekker serving as his caddie and Jansen dishing out well-timed snaps, Pineiro has been able to improve his approach. Piñeiro is perfect on field-goal and extra-point attempts through four games.
“He knows that J.J. is going to put the ball right there, and Johnny is going to get it down fast,” Tabor said. “He’s going to get a nice, long look at the ball and, obviously, that’s what every kicker wants. The longer they see, the more confident they feel about hitting it.”
Head coach Matt Rhule has been impressed by Piñeiro’s steadiness, especially after his lukewarm arrival in camp.
“If you could have been at the first practice … to see how far he’s come and knock a 54-yarder through — he is as improved of a player as there is,” Rhule said. “He was pretty rusty, coming off an injury — so we went through the process of looking at guys. Obviously, Chris had some history with him, worked him out, he had kicked with the Jets, but early on he was rusty, he was really, really rusty. … Now, he’s become a weapon, he’s getting better every week.”
‘One kick at a time’
It was like déjà vu.
Tabor watched Piñeiro make his first extra-point attempt with the Panthers and then launch a kickoff, which sailed out of bounds at the 2-yard line and set up the Cleveland Browns’ offense at the 40-yard line on the following drive.
A similar sequence happened during Piñeiro’s first-ever game with the Bears. Instead of an extra point, Piñeiro made his first-ever field-goal attempt — a 38-yarder — and then booted the follow-up kickoff out of bounds at the 6-yard line to set up a shorter field for the Green Bay Packers.
“I kind of had a (thought) deep down inside like, ‘I can’t believe I just witnessed that again,’ ” Tabor said with a laugh. “But that’s part of the rust.”
Piñeiro still has some work to do to become a mainstay specialist.
While he’s been efficient on field-goal and extra-point attempts, the Panthers are still working with him on his long-term consistency and his kickoff mechanics. The Panthers brought in kicking coach Jamie Kohl, who worked with Tabor and Piñeiro in Chicago, as a consultant to improve the kicker’s striking form.
Jansen has also been impressed by how diligently Piñeiro works on his craft.
“Eddy goes out, he gets his work in. If he misses a ball in practice, he comes back and he works on that one. He puts it down,” Jansen said. “And that to me is a great sign of a confident player who knows what he needs to do to get better and knows that you get to the game on Sunday and your performance will be there.”
Confidence has been the key for Piñeiro through his NFL ups and downs. He could have easily been discouraged by the injuries and all of the different landing spots, but instead he has willed himself through the muck of being an unsettled NFL kicker.
“What Eddy brings, I think, is an innate confidence that the next one is going in,” Jansen said. “You can just see it in his preparation. I always say sometimes you see kickers and kicking is a hobby to them — they’ll just kick and kick and kick because that’s how they relieve stress. That’s not Eddy.”
Rhule and Tabor prefer that the special teams unit defends kickoffs, instead of having the kicker blast the ball through the end zone. That’s been an adjustment for Piñeiro, but the staff believes he is starting to adapt to that strategy as the season goes along.
“I think he’s gotten better every week,” Rhule said. “The kickoffs are getting better.”
Piñeiro’s career has always been a work in progress. He’s dealt with his fair share of adversity.
That’s why he isn’t taking his opportunity with the Panthers for granted.
“Right now, I’m just (taking it) one kick at a time,” Piñeiro said. “Just staying as positive as I can. My journey has kind of been up and down — being hurt, getting traded, going to Chicago, then Cairo getting a big contract, then going to the Jets —I’ve been all over the place. But this time, I feel really comfortable with this team, and I feel really comfortable with the snap-hold-kick, and the guys blocking for me. It’s just been an easier transition.”
Tabor has seen Piñeiro mature since leaving Chicago. He’s older and heavier, which Tabor believes were important aspects of his career development. For the longtime special teams coach, the key for Piñeiro is finding long-term consistency.
“Guys that make kicks, but the ball is going all over the place and it’s loose going through the uprights, they’re not going to make it very long,” Tabor said. “A guy that strikes the ball really well and is consistent with his ball flight and his striking, he minimizes the chance of error. … And that’s (where) I think we’re progressing with Eddy.”