"We've struggled during my tenure (to find a punter)," general manager Ted Thompson said during training camp. "I'm sure it's been pointed out by all of you guys. If you have one, then you kind of say it's easy to find those guys. It's when you're looking for one when it gets hard."
For Thompson, it was hard.
In 2005, he was stuck with holdover B.J. Sander before turning to a bartender — yes, a bartender — named Ryan Flinn for the final two games.
In 2006 and 2007, Thompson went with strong-legged but inconsistent Canadian Jon Ryan.
In 2008, it was veteran Derrick Frost and, for the final few games, Jeremy Kapinos. In 2009, it was Kapinos.
In 2010, Thompson brought Tim Masthay and Chris Bryan to training camp. Masthay went undrafted in 2009, got cut by the Colts before the first preseason game and spent the year out of the league. Bryan worked with former Packers punter Nathan Chapman in their native Australia.
A dynamic duo, they were not.
After missing on a bartender and a retread, a Canadian and an Australian, Masthay finally has solidified the position for Thompson to such an extent that he was rewarded with a contract extension through the 2016 season during training camp.
"We feel very comfortable with Tim," Thompson said. "He came in and competed for a job and won the job. What was impressive to me was his continued growth. He didn't stop with just winning the job. He wants to be really good and he works at his craft. He's extraordinary in the strength and conditioning part of our organization. We're glad to have him.
Since Week 7 of last season, Masthay leads the NFL in the all-important net average at 43.0 yards per punt. No. 2 on the list is New Orleans' Thomas Morestead and No. 3 is San Francisco's Andy Lee. Masthay has outkicked them both this season.
Is it time for Masthay to be mentioned alongside the likes of Oakland's Shane Lechler and Lee as the best punter in the league?
"Truthfully, I don't think about that too much," Masthay said. "I think about my process a lot, I think about the standards that we have here to play at a very high level. I do set numerical goals for myself but I don't really focus on them. I set them, see them as a goal, and then I dismiss them and just focus on my process."
Masthay, who set franchise records for average (45.6) and net average (38.6) last season, is off to a tremendous start.
He ranks 11th with a net average of 42.1, even while facing the dangerous trio of Devin Hester, Leon Washington and Darren Sproles. Only Tampa Bay's Michael Koenen (12) has placed more punts inside the 20-yard line than Masthay's 11. He's tied for sixth as opponents have returned just 31.6 percent of his punts. With 37 return yards allowed on 19 punts, his 1.9-yard average per punt ranks fourth.
A major weapon for Masthay is the Aussie-style punt, with its end-over-end motion landing like a pitching wedge.
"It's a lot more accurate because of the way the ball bounces," special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. "It has a tendency to hit more softly than a spiral, and it allows the outside guys on a punt to get down there and have a chance to down it."
Working alongside Bryan helped, but a bigger deal was time spent with Darren Bennett during the lockout. Bennett, who's also from Australia, was the punter on the all-1990s team.
"The biggest thing about being around Bryan was it got me into doing that style of punt," Masthay said. "It convinced me of that style of punt. So, there was that factor. I watched him some, I remember watching a lot of film on the other Australians who were doing it in the league. I was fortunate to pick Darren Bennett's brain a little bit."
In two-plus seasons, Masthay has placed 59 punts inside the 20-yard line with 11 touchbacks, a ratio of 5.4 to 1. The other five punters combined for 76 inside-the-20 punts and 41 touchbacks, a ratio of just of 1.91 to 1.
"It changed my game learning how to do that effectively because it made me a much more effective red zone punter, which is critical in the league," Masthay said.
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