While Ryan finished the 2006 season with the third-best single-season gross average in team history (44.5 yards), he was tied for 26th in the National Football League in net yards (distance of the punt from Green Bay's line of scrimmage to the point where the ball is returned) with an average of 35.7 yards. Opposing returners simply had more time to get their wheels turning, which resulted in long runbacks, including one touchdown.
Before leaving Green Bay for his hometown of Regina, Saskatchewan on Jan. 2, special teams coordinator Mike Stock told Ryan to change his approach to punting from three steps to two during the off-season. In 16 seasons of coaching in the NFL, Stock had never asked a punter to reduce his number of steps. But he felt that Ryan needed to change in order to improve his consistency and hang time, which in turn will improve the Packers' punt coverage.
"With three steps he was too far strung out," said Stock. "He was reaching for the ball too much and he wasn't consistent. This gives him a chance for a better swing than he had before.
"He's got a powerful leg. He's got a fast leg, like a golf swing, and this is going to make him better."
With the new approach, Ryan stands back about 11 yards off the line of scrimmage compared to 9 ½ yards last season. By the time he kicks the ball, he is about 10 yards from the line of scrimmage, Stock explained.
"You don't want to be in any closer than 10 yards on the impact," said Stock. "Now he's at about 11 (at impact), so he's another step away from the rush. He's one step less for (the opponents)."
Ryan first worked on the new approach as soon as he returned home to Canada. First without a ball, then with it. When he returned to attend the Packers' off-season workout program in March, the new approach began to get a little more comfortable.
"It took a little bit to get used to just because I've been doing it that way since I was seven years old," Ryan said. "To change over in the off-season was, at first, a little weird, but I'm more comfortable and my punting is a little more consistent."
Ryan says he has reached a point where he doesn't think about the new approach.
"The muscle memory has kind of kicked in, and now it seems like second nature," he said.
This year is different for Ryan, 26, in other ways as well. Last year during training camp, his father, Bob Ryan, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Jon Ryan was excused by Coach Mike McCarthy on a few occasions during training camp and the regular season to be with his father. Still, Ryan honored his father's wish by playing in every game, even two days after Bob Ryan passed away on Dec. 1.
"It was definitely a distraction. It was always there," Ryan said. "It made it very difficult some days."
This year, says Ryan, is like "night and day" compared to last season.
"Compared to last season, I didn't know what to expect," Ryan said. "Didn't know exactly what was going on. I poured pretty much everything I had into training camp (in 2006) just to get the spot. This year, I feel like I've been able to save myself a little bit (in training camp) as well as punt better than I did last year. It's kind of a different approach. I feel comfortable with everything around here."
With a shorter approach, Stock feels that Ryan will be more effective at directional punting, something he worked on in training camp. If all goes well, the Packers should be able to pin the ball inside the opponents' 20 yard line, or at least provide tighter coverage deep in opponents' territory by kicking the ball out of bounds.
"It will restrict their area for return, then maybe you only have to cover two-thirds of the field," Stock said.
One less step may add up to better performances for Ryan and the Packers' punt coverage unit.
"With two steps he's in control," Stock said. "Better control, more compact movement into the ball, better compact swing. Now he has a chance to hit up and through the ball, not just reach and drive it. He can do both. He's got a better foundation off that left foot."