Last year, it would be punter No. 7, with Kentucky's Tim Masthay battling Australia's Chris Bryan in a duel of players who had never punted in even a preseason game. Masthay emerged victorious after a solid but hardly overwhelming training camp and preseason.
The early returns suggested the Packers would be looking for their eighth punter in seven seasons. Instead, Masthay emerged as one of the top young punters in the NFL and perhaps has solidified the position for the first time since Bidwell from 2000 through 2003.
"My turning point, most people point to the Jets game, and that was definitely a big step for me," Masthay told Packer Report this week. "But it was really the week before that I felt like I had started to really get a groove. Preseason, I punted pretty decent, but the first six weeks (of the regular season), I was up and down. I had played pretty well against Washington (in Week 5) and was starting to feel pretty good but then I came back and did not play well against Miami (in Week 6).
"I was like, ‘Crap, my back's against the wall. I need to become more consistent, more productive for this team.' Going into that Minnesota game, we were 3-3 and it was a huge game for both teams. We only punted twice but both punts were good punts, effective punts, hit them like I wanted to. I drew a lot of confidence from that game and really played well from there on out the rest of the season."
Did he ever. The raw numbers hardly tell the story, though. Masthay ranked 14th in the NFL in punting with a 43.9-yard average and, more importantly, 18th with a net average of 37.6. But discard those up-and-down first six games and you get a much different story. In his final 10 regular-season games, Masthay's net average was 39.8, a figure that over the course of a full season would have ranked fourth in the league — behind two dome punters and the best punter of this generation, Oakland's Shane Lechler.
Moreover, he hit 21 punts inside the 20-yard line with just three touchbacks during the final 10 games — that 7-to-1 ratio would have ranked a stellar sixth in the league.
Masthay was at his best when the games were the biggest — the season-ending stretch of six must-win games. Against New York in Week 16, he had a net average of 39.0 and allowed 13 return yards on five punts. In Week 17 against Devin Hester and the Bears, Masthay pinned Chicago inside its 20-yard line four times. He allowed 15 return yards on four punts at blustery Philadelphia in the wild-card round. After not punting in the divisional game at Atlanta, Masthay performed brilliantly in the NFC Championship Game by pinning Chicago inside its 20 five times. In the Super Bowl, the Steelers had 5 return yards on Masthay's six punts.
"The punter can change field position dramatically," special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum told Packer Report last week. "You saw what Masthay did the second half of the season and what he did against Chicago in those last two games. That guy really has a chance to affect the game. When you start putting your opponent inside the 20 — we did it five times against Chicago — then you're playing better defense, too, because the scoring probability goes down."
Masthay graciously deflected the credit.
"As a punt team as a whole, we do take a lot of pride because when it comes down to being productive as a punting unit, there's heck of a lot more that goes into it than me," Masthay said. "It starts with Slocum and Chad Morton and their game-planning and scouting. If I'm punting the ball well but we're not protecting or covering well, then it's not going to make too much difference — and vice-versa, if I'm not punting well but we're doing everything else right, it's not going to make much difference. In the playoffs, I was able to punt the ball well and we covered the ball like crazy. We were really satisfied and gratified to come through in a lot of big spots late in the year."
Punters are the most-maligned players in the game, an afterthought until they shank a ball out of bounds. But the value of Masthay is obvious, with the offense, defense and special teams "fitting together," to steal a favorite phrase of coach Mike McCarthy.
"As long as I'm with the Packers — I hope that's a long time — I just want to be a productive player," Masthay said. "For us as a punt team, knowing the offense and the defense that we have, it's a blast. We go out there feeling like, if we can back the opponent up inside the 20, there's a very slim chance that they're going to score on our defense. And really, there's a very slim chance that they're going to be moving the ball a whole lot, which means they're going to be giving the ball to our offense on a short field. We know that if our offense gets the ball on a short field, there's a very slim chance that many defenses are going to stop them."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport.