Would you believe Tim Masthay is having one of the best seasons by a Packers punter in franchise history? Very quietly, he's done exactly that.
That says a little bit about the quality of punters the Packers have had through their history, but it also shows they're leaps and bounds ahead of the past couple seasons when the team suffered through the Derrick Frost and Jeremy Kapinos eras.
Masthay enters the season finale against the Chicago Bears with a 37.8-yard net average, which–if it holds–would be the highest net average since 1976. Jon Ryan had a 37.6 net average in 2007, the mark Masthay would have to beat.
The rookie punter has certainly come a long way since the first couple games of the season.
"I think the first quarter of the season, my motions were up and down, confidence was all over the place," said Masthay. "I think I've been able to stabilize that a little bit more since that first Minnesota game."
The first Minnesota game was Week 7. From that point forward, Masthay has been golden. His very next game, Week 8 at the New York Jets in windy conditions, was one of the best punting performances by a Packer in recent memory.
In that game Masthay hit eight punts for a 44.0-yard gross average and a 41.5 net average. He also placed five balls inside the 20, which tied a single-game club record. For his efforts, he was named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week.
Over his last eight games–a streak that began with that Jets game–Masthay is no. 2 in the NFL in net average (40.6), no. 8 in gross average (44.4) and no. 7 in punts inside the 20 (16).
Perhaps even more impressive is that four of those games have been played in less than ideal–cold or windy–outdoor environments: Week 8 at the Jets, Week 15 at the Patriots and Weeks 13 and 16 at Lambeau Field against the 49ers and Giants respectively.
"Cold and wind make a difference, and wind is even more difficult than cold," said Masthay. "The wind, no. 1, once you drop the ball, it moves the ball, so you don't necessarily contact it exactly the way you want to. And then once you do contact the ball, it moves the ball up in the air."
Playing for the Packers presents a challenge that a punter, for say the Miami Dolphins, doesn't necessarily have to endure. Where the Dolphins might play one or two cold-weather games all year, Masthay has already played in adverse conditions in a quarter of the team's entire schedule with one more cold-weather contest to go.
"It presents a challenge," said Masthay. "It's a difficult place to play as a punter and kicker for sure. But I'm kind of learning how to get through it and how to be productive in it, and kind of starting to embrace it and not viewing it as a bad thing at all. Actually I heard a great quote the other day I really liked. It said, 'The weather doesn't beat you, the opponent beats you.'
"So it's not as though... I'm going to hit 4.8 hangtime that's 50 yards on the sideline. That's hard to do in perfect conditions, but it's downright impossible when you're trying to play in cold and windy games."
In Week 14's loss to the Detroit Lions in a domed environment, Masthay became the first punter in franchise history to have more than a 50-yard gross average in a game with eight or more attempts when he had a 50.3 yard gross on his eight punts.
As nice as it is to be in the record books and have a good gross average, Masthay knows there's more important things to accomplish. Nobody will remember he hit a far punt if the return man takes it back for a touchdown, as the Bears' Devin Hester did against him in Week 3.
Having a good net average is far more important. While some of the burden falls on the rest of the squad in how well they protect and cover a punt as far as net average is concerned, the punter also has a major influence.
It's about having a high-enough hangtime to allow his coverage to get downfield; it's about pinning opponents along the sideline where the gunners will be; it's about avoiding touchbacks.
When asked what he's learned in his first season in the NFL, Masthay stressed the importance of limiting the opposition to as little as possible.
"Trying to get as many fair catches, or unreturnable balls, and balls that net a decent yardage," said Masthay. "And understanding where we're at in the point of the game, or using the Aussie punts when those are effective going in and all that kind of stuff. Kind of just learning how to manage the game and compete with the returner. That mindset has helped me the most."
Consider that Masthay has placed 21 punts inside the 20 this season, the most since Josh Bidwell put 26 inside the 20 in 2002. All these things add up to a respectable net average, the most important statistic a punter can have.
Now the job becomes trying to stop Hester, one of the best return specialists in the history of the NFL.
"I think Devin Hester is the best player on their football team," said head coach Mike McCarthy. "I think he is having... an incredible season. He has impacted pretty much every game that they have won. He is a big part of it and he is really doing a nice job as a receiver.
"When he has the ball in his hands, he is dangerous, whether they are blocking it better or whatever the case is. He has always played well and his statistics speak for themselves. Everybody talks about he has scored the most touchdowns, but they are No. 1 in the league in field position and he is a big key around that."
Field position has played a big part into why the Bears take an 11-4 record into Sunday's game. Their bread and butter is their defense, but having the best field position in the NFL makes it a lot easier on an inconsistent offense.
If the Packers can force the Bears to drive the length of the field time after time, they stand a much better chance of winning. And a lot of that will be Masthay's responsibility.
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