During the fourth quarter of the Panthers’ win Sunday against the Titans, the wind changed.
It’s something that most people don’t notice, or frankly care about it.
But for Joey Slye, it meant everything.
With about six minutes remaining, Slye went out to attempt a 49-yard field goal. The score wasn’t particularly close, Carolina led 30-14 at the time, but the kick would have made it a three-possession game.
The wind had been traveling north to south earlier that afternoon, which meant, had this try been like the first one he made that day, Slye needed to aim the kick straight down the middle of the goal posts.
But when he trotted out for this attempt, the direction of the wind flipped to east-west. And when he kicked it straight down the middle, the ball sailed wide left.
Although missing kicks is frustrating, Carolina coach Ron Rivera has implored the young kicker to learn something from each try that misses the mark.
“I think the thing that Joey does really well is he takes those life lessons within the plays or within those games, and he works on them throughout the week,” said punter Michael Palardy, who doubles as Slye’s holder. “He builds on the things that he’s really good at, and he builds and works on the things that he may feel like need more work. That’s pretty impressive to watch in practice and then transition into games on Sundays.”
Slye’s journey to starting in the NFL has been well chronicled after the 23-year-old was unable to latch onto a roster last year. He was given the starting job in Carolina when Graham Gano was lost for the season due to re-injuring his plant leg.
But he earned the job based on an impressive preseason performance that included hitting three field goals of more than 50 yards. However, accuracy has long been an issue for Slye since his time at Virginia Tech. In his senior year in 2017, he made only 68.2 percent of his field goals, and that undesired trend is beginning to reemerge.
After making 10 of his 11 field goals in the first four games of the season, Slye has made just 5-of-10 attempts in his the last four outings. All of those misses have come from 40-plus yards.
In those four games (Jacksonville, Tampa Bay in London, at San Francisco and Tennessee), Slye has made just 2-of-5 field-goal attempts in the second half. Only five kickers have a worse second-half field goal percentage than Slye this season (70 percent). The worst of the group, Cairo Santos, was released by the Titans after missing all four field goals in an October loss to Buffalo
But what exactly was Slye’s lesson from the changing winds Sunday?
“(Improving) my situational awareness,” Slye said. “I’ve got to make sure everything’s good going into the end of the game, because at the end of the day, I want to make sure if we’re losing at some point in the fourth quarter and we need a field goal, I need to make sure I’m making them.”
Luckily for the Panthers, none of Slye’s tries have come on a potential game-winning kick, but the recent issues could be a cause for concern for the games ahead.
“I know it doesn’t have (anything) to do with nerves,” Slye said of the misses. “It’s just more continually analyzing the field knowing what I want to do during that specific time of the game, just continually learning from it. I just got to get better.”
He’s going to get a chance to show just how much better he can be in likely freezing temperatures in Green Bay. Slye will only have limited time pregame to check out Lambeau Field and determine how the weather there will impact his kicks. The conditions are impossible to replicate exactly on a practice field in Charlotte.
Slye’s pregame routine includes starting by kicking closer to the field goal posts and then continually backing up to find spots that may be impacted by the wind in different ways.
There are a lot of unknowns, especially with colder temperatures, which also results in the distance he feels comfortable kicking at being smaller, in addition to the ball being harder to kick.
But Palardy and long snapper J.J. Jansen have done everything they can to make sure Slye is as comfortable as possible wherever he is kicking.
“At the end of the day, JJ (Jansen) and I have a lot to do with his success as a field-goal kicker,” Palardy said. “JJ and I take a lot of pride in our job, making sure whoever is kicking field goals is in the most comfortable and best situation possible to concentrate on their job.”
Despite the challenge, Rivera supports his young kicker.
“It’s not necessarily going to be about whether he’s had a few misses, it’s really going to be about whether or not we feel good about the distance more so than anything else,” Rivera said. “He is a first-year kicker for the most part in the NFL, he’s got to go through some growing pains. We made the decision to live with it.
“Once we put Graham (Gano) on IR, we said this is the guy, we’ve got to stick with him, he’s a young kicker. If you start getting rid of young kickers who have some success, they never get a chance to develop and that’s the thing that you sit there looking at a kid like Joey, who’s got a tremendous leg, who’s been pretty good for us. I think to push the panic button now is a little too early, so we’re going to try and show as much confidence in him as we can and continue to let him kick.”
Even Slye pointed out that missing kicks late in games has been an issue recently. And there will likely come a time in the last eight games of the season when it will be up to the rookie to win a game, whether in Green Bay or somewhere down the line.
“For me as kicker, I kind of want to be the guy that’s reliable in those situations, I want to be the guy that the team can count on to where we’re moving the ball, we know we kind of got a field goal in our back pocket,” Slye said. “I get excited for them, I want one. I really haven’t had one, so a lot of times I’m sitting there, like, ‘Yo, I want to do this so bad,’ but whatever the team needs me to do, I’ll do, but I kind of get excited for those moments.”