The season finally over, Tim Masthay hardly felt satisfied as he exited Lambeau Field for the long offseason.
The punter's head still was spinning. On pace for a career year with the Green Bay Packers, Masthay was confounded by what became an unshakable second-half slump. He struggled with confidence in the final 10 games and too often let negative thoughts creep into his mind.
While searching for answers, Masthay got a phone call from Ron Zook. The former University of Florida and Illinois coach was calling to say he'd just been promoted to special-teams coordinator, a post vacated when Shawn Slocum was let go after the season.
There was one other thing he wanted to tell his punter.
"I believe in you," Zook said. "I think you're good to go."
It was one line in a long conversation, but the words stuck with Masthay. It was good to know the new leader of the Packers' special-teams unit had faith in him to get the job done, especially given all the changes the organization made this offseason.
Masthay, 28, said he's felt revitalized since returning for the offseason program in April. His biggest target was regaining his comfort level and feels he's met that mark. In an effort to generate more power, Masthay said, he "experimented" too much last season when he should've been focusing on what got him where he is.
He was on pace to set career-highs through his first 28 attempts, averaging 47.0 gross yards and 42.2 net yards per punt. Even then, Masthay felt he wasn't controlling his punts as well as he did during his first four seasons.
Maybe that's why things went south in the second half. The offense's firepower made his opportunities more sporadic, as well. His gross (40.1) and net (33.6) averages dipped significantly on his last 21 regular-season attempts.
Masthay finished the season with a career low for net average (37.0), which ranked 31st in the NFL. There were five games where he had one punt or fewer, leading to only 49 attempts on the season. Zook believes that played a role in his downturn.
After regrouping this offseason, Masthay feels he's starting to find some answers.
"From mid-January to mid-April … those three months felt like three years to me," Masthay said. "I was anxious to get back here with the guys and get into more of a structured football environment and working on punting again.
"Those three months, some of the reflection and figuring out where this is probably where I made some mistakes, let too many negative thoughts in and experimented too much during the season, that helped me turn the corner, as well."
This summer, Masthay faces competition for the first time since he beat out Chris Bryan to win the job in 2010. It comes in the form of former Alabama standout Cody Mandell, who actually worked out with Masthay leading up to training camp last year.
The two have a mutual friend in Jamie Kohl, who trains kickers, punters and long-snappers through his professional camps. Although Mandell's presence adds some "adrenaline" to practices, Masthay has prided himself on not needing camp competition over the years to stay motivated.
The reality of his profession is that punters come and go regardless of whether they're the only one on the roster. There's no playbook to pick up, so a team can easily make a change overnight.
"Truthfully, I'm always thinking about my craft, trying to think of ways to get better whether I'm on the field or not on the field," Masthay said. "From a motivational standpoint, it doesn't matter. It doesn't make a difference if I'm directly competing with somebody or not. I've never once showed up to a training camp feeling like I had the job."
Masthay will take a significant lead over Mandell into next month's training camp after a solid showing during the handful of offseason practices that were open to the public. His hang-time and placement of balls inside the 20 were well ahead of Mandell in organized team activities and mini-camps.
Zook has seen progress in Masthay's technique and confidence. He's controlling his thoughts again and not allowing one bad punt to bother him. The key has been Masthay remembering he has a track record of success punting in Green Bay's challenging climate.
After all, he ranks first in team history in both career gross punting average (44.3) and career net punting average (38.6). His single-season bests in gross punting average (45.6, 2011) and net punting average (39.0, 2013) also are franchise records.
"He got in a little rut last year," Zook said recently. "The way he's punting it now, he's hitting the ball. The one thing is these guys are professionals. They know what it takes. I tell the cover team sometimes, 'Tiger Woods puts it in the woods once in a while.' You've got a 13-inch object that falls funny and the wind and all of those kinds of things, it doesn't always go where you want it to go. Those guys are kicking the snot out of the ball right now. We'll go forward from here."
Masthay has enjoyed what Zook has brought to the special-teams room. He believes the long-time coach's eccentric nature will translate to a turnaround for the entire unit, which ranked last in the Dallas Morning News' rankings last season.
On a personal level, Masthay is seeking his own redemption in 2015. If he regains his form, he'll look back on his offseason conversation with Zook and start of the offseason program as a turning point.
"I'm very excited. I feel very confident," Masthay said. "I feel good about maintaining that going forward. I feel like I hit the markers I wanted to hit in terms of working on some of my technique and feeling like I had a good plan going into training camp.
"Truthfully, I feel great and I'm just excited for camp to start. I'm excited to have the opportunity to go prove myself again."
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