Jason Baker was a fine punter and holder for the Carolina Panthers, but he was replaceable.
The Panthers came to that decision Wednesday when they released Baker, who had punted for the team since 2005 and generally done a good job doing so (although last year his leg didn't seem as strong and he was also hampered by some occasionally awful special-teams coverage, so his net average was quite low for him). When Baker did get one blocked, which would happen every now and then, it was usually a blocking miscue.
But Baker, unlike a fair number of NFL punters, wasn't a good enough kickoff specialist to do both jobs (although he was an excellent holder). That was part of the reason why the Panthers released John Kasay shortly before the 2011 season began and signed Olindo Mare to a four-year, $12-million contract. Mare was supposed to save them a roster spot by both kicking off and kicking field goals.
Mare was great on kickoffs, all right -- he was second in the NFL in 2011 with 53 touchbacks. But he was too often disappointing in the key part of his job. He missed two critical fourth-quarter field goals from relatively short range last season. Kasay, meanwhile, landed on his feet in New Orleans for a one-year gig when the Saints' regular kicker got hurt.
The Panthers even went so far as to bring in another kicker toward the end of last season, although Mare never lost his job (and I imagine he will kick for Carolina again in 2012 even though they recently signed a different kicker, Justin Medlock, to compete with Mare in training camp. Medlock has been kicking well in the CFL).
My point is, though, that Baker could have been released before last season. Kasay -- who was and is good friends with Baker -- could have been kept. And another guy who both punted and kicked off could have been hired, and fairly cheaply, too.
Of course, hindsight is 20-20, and the Panthers thought with Mare they were getting a fantastic 2-for-1 special.
In reality, though, they made a questionable decision to keep Baker instead of Kasay when they decided they were going to go from three kickers down to two (Rhys Lloyd had handled kickoffs before that) and that hasn't worked out that well.
And now they have let Baker, 33, go for salary-cap reasons.
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