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Closer Look

Botched kickoff comes at precisely the wrong time for Panthers

Updated: Monday February 2, 2004 2:04AM

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HOUSTON -- Kicking is all about timing. The snap from center. The hold. The spin to get the laces just so. Getting the plant foot down in time. Swinging the leg through.

John Kasay could not have picked a worse time for his timing to be off.

Carolina's usually sure-footed placekicker kept his team in Sunday's Super Bowl in a lot of ways. His 50-yard field goal as time ticked down in the first half gave the Panthers new life. His booming kickoffs kept the Patriots at bay.

But when it came time to do maybe the simplest of his duties, Kasay committed the worst of placekicking mistakes. And it could have cost the Panthers a chance to beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

"That was a big mistake," said Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch.

"You've never made a mistake?" Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith asked a reporter.

Sure we have. It's just we don't expect it from a guy like Kasay, at least not in a critical juncture of the game like that.

The Panthers had just fought back to tie the score late in the fourth quarter when Jake Delhomme hooked up with Ricky Proehl on a 12-yard touchdown pass with 1:08 left. Kasay, in fact, kicked the extra point to knot the score 29-all. The game seemed destined for overtime.

Kasay lined up for the kickoff, determined to drive it deep. And then he muffed it. Mis-hit it. Absolutely screwed it up. Kasay pulled the unimaginable at that point, knocking the kickoff out of bounds.

You could almost hear the collective groan throughout the stadium.

He put his hands on his hips in disgust and looked skyward.

"I caught it a little late," Kasay said. "I was trying to make a really good kick. I got it a little high and a little outside."

Punching a kickoff out of bounds is kind of like a dual penalty. By rule, a kickoff that goes out of bounds comes out to the 40-yard line, which is a killer right there.

But without a run back, no extra time comes off the clock, either. And, when Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has the ball at the end of the game, you want to give him as little time as possible.

"With a little over a minute, you give Tom Brady and his offense the ball and all they need is 25 yards ... ," said Proehl. "It's tough."

Kasay, in the few kickoffs he attempted, was on. His first boomer, late in the second quarter, went 64 yards to the New England 6. He opened the second half with a 63 yarder. He popped another one 57, and then another 67.

His kickoffs were so good, in fact, that the best field position the Patriots had after a Kasay kickoff was the New England 32. And that was on that last kick, when Bethel Johnson had a nifty 29-yard return, his longest of the game.

But when Kasay muffed the ball out of bounds at the New England 18, bringing the ball out to the 40, the Patriots were looking at about 27 yards to get a chance at a 50-yard field goal.

Brady connected on a 13-yard pass to Troy Brown on second down, and another 13-yard after a penalty put the Patriots in a first-and-20 at the New England 43. He found tight end Dan Graham for four yards, and then hooked up with Branch for the back-breaker, a 17-yarder that took the Patriots down to the Carolina 23.

A couple of timeouts later, Kasay's counterpart, Adam Vinatieri, punched through a 41-yard field goal with four seconds left that gave the Patriots a 32-29 win and their second Super Bowl win in three years.

Afterward, the deeply religious Kasay met reporters and answered questions.

"We needed a really good kick," Kasay said. "And I didn't get it done."

And, so, neither did the Panthers.

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