Green Bay Packers punter Tim Masthay kicks during Wednesday's training camp practice at Ray Nitschke Field. / H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette
During a special-teams period in practice Wednesday, Tim Masthay hit eight punts from deep in his own territory into a stiff breeze.
Only one was less than 46 yards, the average was 51.1 yards with 4.53 seconds of hang time, and maybe more importantly, all eight pinned the return man between the numbers and the left sideline. It was about as good a punting exhibition as you’ll see in an NFL training camp.
The Packers have been looking for a long-term answer at that position since 1998, when Craig Hentrich left in free agency to become the NFL’s first $1 million-a-year punter. Based on Masthay’s strong finish last season and even better start in camp this year, he’s looking like a real long-term possibility.
“I would expect so,” said Shawn Slocum, the Packers’ special teams coach. “He’s a solid guy. The way he takes care of his body and the way he studies the game, it’s conducive to having a successful career. As long as he stays hungry and after it like he is now, he should be a very solid punter.”
Masthay’s performance through three weeks in camp suggests he’s one of the players making a big jump from his first year to his second year in the NFL, the time when coach Mike McCarthy says most players make their greatest improvement.
Last year Masthay won a training-camp duel with Chris Bryan and went on to have a decent season in which he tied for No. 13 in the NFL in gross average per punt (43.9 yards) and No. 18 in net average (37.6 yards). He closed the season especially well and in both the Packers’ wins over Chicago in the final six games — one in the regular-season finale, the other in the NFC championship — was a major factor in holding game-changing return man Devin Hester to only five returns in 16 attempts and a 10.2-yard average in terrible winter punting conditions.
The Packers felt good enough about Masthay to forego signing a competitor for training camp, and so far he’s been sharper and more consistent than at any time last season.
“He’s hitting the ball as well as anybody I’ve seen,” said kicker Mason Crosby, who’s in his fifth NFL training camp. “His direction and hang time, how he strikes the ball, it’s perfect. Especially with a little crosswind, that’s tough sometimes on the drop, it can affect the ball, but he’s putting it exactly where he wants it. He’s definitely in a groove. We just have to make sure — we don’t want it in camp, save a couple of those (for the regular season).”
After Hentrich went to Tennessee in ’98, the Packers went through 10 punters, and only two lasted at least two full seasons: Josh Bidwell (2000-03) and Jon Ryan (’06-07). Former coach Mike Sherman didn’t try to re-sign Bidwell in free agency after the punter’s bad game in the infamous fourth-and-26 loss at Philadelphia in the playoffs, and General Manager Ted Thompson cut Ryan in training camp in ’08 in favor of Derrick Frost, who himself was cut later that year.
The Packers were hell bent on replacing Jeremy Kapinos after the 2009 season and signed Masthay off the streets in January 2010. Masthay, who had spent his rookie year of 2009 out of football after the Colts cut him in training camp, beat out the former Australian Rules Football standout Bryan in camp last year and then impressed Slocum during the season with his copious note taking, attention to detail and compact punting form.
Now 24, Masthay has shown a quicker and more explosive leg than anyone since Hentrich except for Ryan, who was a boomer with inconsistent hang time. The Packers probably erred in releasing Ryan, who is Seattle’s punter, but Masthay is more advanced at the same stage and with his Australian pooch punts is far superior pinning opponents inside the 20.
“I really just feel like the only way I’ll be the long-term punter here is if I keep a day-by-day, short-term thought process,” Masthay said this week. “And if I can get the job done maybe I’ll be that guy. I sure hope so.”
With the NFL lockout prohibiting any work at the Packers’ facilities, Masthay had an itinerant offseason to work on his punting. When he was in Green Bay he worked out at a local gym and punted at St. Norbert College. He spent about two weeks in San Diego, where he lived with his grandparents and worked out with former NFL kicker John Carney, new New York Giants punter Steve Weatherford, and Nick Novak, who’s competing for the New York Jets’ placekicking job.
Masthay spent several days working a kicking and punting camp in Whitewater with Indianapolis punter Pat McAfee and New Orleans punter Thomas Morstead. And Masthay also spent a few days in Arkansas with Packers long-snapper Brett Goode.
Last year the Packers were No. 31 in the Dallas Morning News’ special teams rankings, which are based on the cumulative finish in 22 special teams categories. If they’re to improve on that, Masthay will have to be a key figure. Slocum has said the two players who can most affect field position are the punter and return man, and he’s looking for Masthay to tilt the field the Packers’ favor.
“I think we have a very good punter,” Slocum said. “I said that last September when everyone was not sure about him. He’s fundamentally very sound, what I consider a straight-line punter, very compact in his motion, which means the drop has less (of a chance) for error. He’s in sync right now. His challenge is to stay that way through the course of a season.”
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