One of the more interesting position battles at Carolina Panthers training camp involves an ex-San Diego player who maintains a thick Louisiana accent and a former Canadian Football League standout who once tried to get the Toronto Argonauts to adopt a goat as their mascot.
Meet veteran Mike Scifres and goat aficionado Swayze Waters, an odd-couple pairing battling to become the Panthers’ punter.
“I’m the old man. He’s the young guy that can kick all day,” Scifres said Sunday in describing the competition. “He’s played this game for a long time and he’s played competitively. He was one of the – if not the best guy in Canada for the whole time he was there. I’ve known about him. I think it’s been good so far.”
Neither player has a leg up nine days into camp. Coaches are looking for more consistency from both, and coach Ron Rivera did not rule out the possibility of adding another punter to the mix.
“I don’t think you could say that one guy is way ahead of the other,” special teams coordinator Bruce DeHaven said. “They’re just pretty even.”
Scifres, 35, the oldest player on the roster, is coming off offseason knee surgery on his left, non-kicking leg. He said he feels good physically, but DeHaven indicated Scifres was still working his way back from the injury that hindered him in 2015 with the Chargers.
“He’s had some injury problems and that’s what he’s fighting through right now,” DeHaven said. “You’ve been in the league this long, those things start to crop up and you have to fight through those.”
Scifres, who spent his first 13 seasons with San Diego, is more of a known commodity than Waters, who kicked and punted in Canada the past four years.
DeHaven said Waters has held his own though.
“Swayze has punted a little better than maybe what my expectations were coming from Canada and having been in a couple training camps and not making it,” DeHaven said. “I knew that Mike has been a really good punter in the past. I really did think at one time he was the best punter in the league. He just took people out of the punt return game he hit the ball so high.”
A veteran presence
Scifres (pronounced SIGH-fres) finished among the top 10 in the league in punting average seven times, but his 38.2-yard net average in 2015 was his lowest in five years. The Chargers released him in May and Carolina signed him a month later after his knee had time to heal.
Scifres is looking for more consistency in his punts, saying he’s been “in and out.”
“Just getting back in the swing of it,” he said. “You hit a good one and you try to duplicate it every time, and then you kind of revert back to the ugly misses. Then you’ve got to go back in your head and try to fix it again.”
Waters, 29, also is coming off an injury-plagued season. The CFL Special Teams Player of the Year in 2014, he was limited to five games with Toronto in 2015 because of a hip flexor injury to his kicking leg.
This is the fourth time Waters has been in an NFL training camp, but the first time he’s been able to concentrate solely on punting. He said he’s kicked field goals and extra points, kicked off and punted every year since he was in middle school in Mississippi.
“Part of me every now and then wants to hit one through (the uprights),” Waters said. “But I’ve been wanting to have an identity. It was one or the other for a while. I didn’t care what it was.”
Waters seeking a specialty
Waters said being able to handle all three phases of the kicking game has been a blessing and a curse. His versatility earned him invitations to camp with Pittsburgh, Oakland and Detroit in 2009-11, but the perception that he lacked a specialty might have led to him getting cut.
“A lot of times the three-way guys they view as kind of camp leg type: They’re really good at both, but not great at one kind of thing,” Waters said. “Punting’s always been a little more natural for me. My bad days punting are usually still pretty decent.”
Waters said his leg feels fresher than it did in previous NFL camps when he was doing all three.
Both punters say long snapper J.J. Jansen and kicker Graham Gano have made them feel welcome.
Waters and fellow punter Michael Palardy lived in Gano’s home south of Charlotte during the spring. Palardy was cut to make room for Scifres and signed with the Colts last week.
The punting battle will begin in earnest this week with the first of four preseason games. Rivera has said the exhibitions will weigh more heavily than what the punters do in practice.
Scifres joined the Panthers with the hopes of winning his first Super Bowl ring. Waters is looking to make his first opening-week NFL roster.
Something – and someone – will have to give.
“I never have anything against the other person or to wish poorly on them. I hope they punt well,” Waters said. “I just hope I punt better than they do.”