GREEN BAY – A year ago, Tim Masthay was in a head-to-head competition with Chris Bryan for the Green Bay Packers’ punting job.
A year later, Masthay has no such competition in training camp – and he’s kicking even better.
“I wouldn’t say it’s more relaxed because my expectations for myself haven’t changed. I’m going to continue trying to improve and be as productive as I possibly can. Just more comfortable, more familiar, more confident, more knowledgeable as to what it takes,” said Masthay, who has been terrific in practice throughout camp and was phenomenal in Saturday night’s preseason-opening loss at Cleveland.
“My expectations for myself are real high. So the bar that I’m setting isn’t changing, so what I’m doing isn’t changing – regardless of whether there’s a punt competition going on or whatever.
“I’m more confident this year, more familiar with the organization, the league, the structure here and what it takes to be productive as a punter in this league. So yeah, there’s a little, it’s different in that sense.”
Masthay looked no different Saturday night than he did late last season and in the playoffs, when he was a legitimate weapon for the eventual Super Bowl XLV champions. He punted five times against the Browns, averaging 52.2 gross yards and 40.2 net yards, with one downed inside the 20-yard line and a long of 60.
His five punts, in order: A well-placed 60-yarder with 4.75 seconds of hang time that was returned 22 yards; a 45-yarder with 4.04 seconds of hang time that was returned 15 yards; a 59-yarder with 4.88 seconds of hang time that was returned 18 yards; a 58-yarder with 4.47 seconds of hang time that was returned 5 yards; and a 39-yard Aussie-style kick that had 4.35 seconds of hang time that was downed at the Browns’ 7-yard line.
“I thought he punted the ball very well,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said after the game. “I didn’t watch that much because that’s a post-drive situation.”
Special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum was not available to reporters after the game to talk about Masthay’s performance. The next time Slocum will be available to the media is Wednesday after practice.
Having re-signed long-snapper Brett Goode to an extension at the end of last season and inked kicker Mason Crosby to a five-year, $14.75 million free agent deal last month, the Packers chose not to bring in competition for any of their three specialists, even though the new 90-man roster limit would have given them room to do so this year.
“Obviously it says that we’re comfortable with our guys,” general manager Ted Thompson said. “I’m sure there are guys on the street who are going to wind up being good kickers or punters in the league, but we like our guys.”
There’s a lot to like about Masthay, who last year put an end to two seasons of poor punting by his predecessors.
“I’ve been saying it for over a year, but I’ll say it again,” ex-Packers punter Jon Ryan, now with the Seattle Seahawks, Tweeted Monday. “He’s the real deal. Great punter.”
At the end of training camp in 2008, the Packers chose to cut Ryan, the team’s punter in 2006 and ’07 who’d had no competition in training camp and was kicker Mason Crosby’s regular holder, in favor of Derrick Frost. They made the move in part on the say-so of then-special teams coordinator Mike Stock, who’d worked with Frost in the past.
What followed was two years of subpar punting from Frost (12 games in ‘08) and Jeremy Kapinos (final four games of ’08 and all of ’09) before last year’s competition between Masthay, who’d never kicked in an NFL preseason or regular-season game, and Bryan, a converted Australian Rules Football player.
Both Masthay and Bryan had eight punts in exhibition play, with Masthay averaging 44.9 gross yards and 34.0 net yards, with one touchback and one punt inside the 20-yard line and a long of 56 yards. Bryan averaged 42.0 gross yards, 38.6 net yards and had a long of 57 yards.
But after a Week 6 overtime loss to the Miami Dolphins, McCarthy publicly put Masthay on notice, saying his punting “was not good” against the Dolphins, that Masthay had been “inconsistent” and that he “needs to do a better job.”
Two weeks later, in a critical 9-0 road victory over the New York Jets, Masthay wasn’t just better, he was arguably the game’s MVP. Punting eight times, he averaged 44.0 gross yards, 41.5 net yards and 4.51 seconds of hang time, with five of his kicks being downed inside the 20-yard line and only one resulting in a touchback. The Jets were forced to fair-catch three of the punts and registered zero return yards.
From then on, Masthay was seen as a weapon rather than a liability, and he and the punt coverage unit corralled the dangerous Devin Hester both in the must-win regular-season finale and the teams’ rematch in the NFC Championship Game in Chicago. Hester, who had a 62-yard go-ahead touchdown on a fourth-quarter punt return in Week 3, was a non-factor in the next two meetings.
Now, it appears Masthay has parlayed last year’s success into a strong start to 2011. That’s not to say he doesn’t see room for improvement, but it sets him up for accomplishing one of his goals for his second season with the team.
“I’d like to get off to a faster start this year, for sure,” Masthay said. "I personally would, (as well as) as a punt team. For instance, I don’t care if I hit a beautiful 4.6(-second) ball that’s 47 yards downfield and it happens to be on the numbers, and we wind up getting burned for a 15 yard return, I don’t walk off the field happy about that.
“I care about production, plain and simple. That comes down to your inside-the-20 vs. touchback ratio, it comes down to your net punt. For instance, we tied the franchise record last year, it’d be great to top that this year as a punt team, limit returners as much as possible. That’s what we’re trying to do as a punt team, try to flip the field for our offense and defense.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.