His 2011 season, however, looked like a case of a sophomore slump.
Against New Orleans in the opener, Darren Sproles returned a punt 72 yards for a touchdown and Masthay's punt from the Saints' 37 bounded into the end zone for a touchback. Against Carolina in Week 2, Masthay averaged just 38.7 yards per punt. A few weeks later against St. Louis, plodding rookie Austin Pettis had a 38-yard return and Masthay had another touchback.
Just like last year, however, Masthay recovered from a slow start to become one of the NFL's top punters.
While Masthay ranks a woeful 29th in the league among punters with at least 25 kicks with a net average of 36.9 yards, he boasts a net of 43.7 over the last six games. San Francisco's Andy Lee leads the league with a net of 43.3. They Packers have won the net punting battle in eight of 12 games, including the last four.
"I wasn't pleased with how I hit the ball the first two weeks of this season, but since then it's been good and we've been playing well as a punt unit for quite a stretch now," Masthay said. "Hopefully, we can keep it going. I just think it's been a combination. The snapping and protection's been good, like always. The gunners have been playing great. And, I've been hitting the ball well. When you put all those things together, it makes for a productive punt unit."
Tim Masthay stays loose on the sideline. Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
In his last six games, the Packers have allowed 62 punt return yards, with 12 punts downed inside the 20-yard line and just two touchbacks. He's been tremendous the last two weeks, with back-to-back games of four punts inside the 20 — a first in franchise history since that stat began being tracked in 1976.
"Tim's a big-time weapon, and field position is so important, especially as we enter into winter football it will be an even bigger emphasis," coach Mike McCarthy said.
Masthay has put an end to the revolving door at punter. Jeremy Kapinos (2009), Derrick Frost (2008), Jon Ryan (2006 and 2007), B.J. Sander and Ryan Flinn (2005) and Bryan Barker (2004) all were tried at punter after the Packers let Josh Bidwell depart in free agency after capably handling the punting duties from 2000 through 2003.
Masthay, a first-team all-conference performer as a senior at Kentucky, signed with Indianapolis as an undrafted free agent in 2009 but didn't stick with the Colts long enough to even kick in the preseason. The Packers worked him out shortly thereafter but stuck with Kapinos, who had replaced Frost late in 2008. Masthay spent the year out of the league until the Packers signed him a few days after the playoff loss at Arizona.
"We knew how talented he was, there was no question about that," McCarthy said. "We knew Tim, just his skill level, he had a chance to be a special punter. If you ever had a chance to watch him just from a pure athletic standpoint, it's not a surprise."
Masthay, who beat out Australian import Chris Bryan to win the job last summer, might not have looked like an athlete when he was fumbling his way to a first down on an aborted punt attempt against Tampa Bay, but he was an all-state performer in football — not only was he a great punter and kicker, but he finished with 49 receptions for 1,121 yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior at Murray (Ky.) High School. He also was first-team all-state in soccer, an all-region baseball player and a four-year letterwinner in basketball.
At Kentucky, he was the school's two-time special teams player of the year because of his ability on punts and kickoffs.
"His mechanics – and I was with him at the Combine and had studied him out of college – his mechanics in terms of leg swing and straightness were the things that impressed me most," special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. "At that time, he took a fairly long stride and that's something we addressed immediately because it's important for a punter to (have a short stride)."
Masthay's adjustments impressed Slocum.
"I talked to him right after we signed him and I wasn't able to start working with him for a couple months because of the league year," Slocum said. "I told him what I thought he needed to do based on my observations, and when he showed up, he had made a lot of improvement in terms of correcting that."
Last year, Masthay's net of 37.6 tied for the best mark since the team began tracking that figure in 1976, and his 25 punts inside the 20 were the most since Craig Hentrich had 26 in 1997, 28 in 1996 and 26 in 1995. While four consecutive cold-weather games to end the season likely will prevent him from setting the record, his gross average of 45.0 yards is tied with Hentrich's mark set in 1997.
Performing in the cold is as much about attitude as anything. Masthay showed he won't freeze because of the elements or late-game pressure, with superlative performances against Devin Hester and the Bears in Week 17 (36.6 net, four inside-the-20 punts) and the NFC Championship Game (34.5 net but five inside-the-20 punts).
"My expectations don't change as far as production goes," Masthay said. "It's possible that the numbers can change here and there, but my goal on every punt is for us to be productive. Whether we're back and we need to flip the field, we're going in and we need to pin them inside the 20, or we just need a conservative, safe punt that they can't return to just be productive. The cold and the wind, it's going to change how far and how high you can hit the ball, but it doesn't have to change the production. And when I say production, I'm talking about those things – pinning them inside the 20, flipping the field when you need to flip the field, having an unreturnable punt when you need an unreturnable punt, getting the ball out of bounds when you need to get it out of bounds. The expectations don't go down."
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.