Masthay holds off Mortell's challenge

Michael Cohen, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY - For the second consecutive season, Green Bay Packers punter Tim Masthay retained his job by winning a one-on-one competition.

Peter Mortell, the Green Bay native brought in to challenge Masthay, announced on social media Monday that “my football journey will continue elsewhere” after four months with the organization. The Packers released Mortell as part of a round of cuts by general manager Ted Thompson, who must pare his roster to 75 players before the 3 p.m. deadline Tuesday.

Defensive tackle Demetris Anderson, cornerback Randall Jette, wide receiver Jamel Johnson, linebacker Derrick Matthews and wide receiver Ed Williams were also waived.

“That smile has been there since April 30th, the day I signed as a Packer,” Mortell wrote on Instagram and Twitter. “While my football journey will continue elsewhere, I can't begin to describe what these past four months have meant to me. Every kid who grows up in Wisconsin dreams of putting on the Green and Gold. I'm proud to say I made that dream a reality. I can't thank my family, friends, and fans enough for their support throughout my time here. YOU are what makes this team so special. I was a fan of this team the day I was born, and I'm an even bigger fan of this team today. You see the smile in that picture? Don't worry, it's still there as I type this.

“Also, I am undefeated as a Packer. That's pretty damn cool. God Bless and, as always, Go Pack Go!”

In choosing Masthay the Packers closed the book on a feel-good story with roots dating back to the Vince Lombardi era. It was then that Mortell’s grandfather began to work as the clock operator at Lambeau Field. He passed the job to his son — Mortell’s father — at the turn of the century, and it’s remained in the family ever since. 

“Just growing up in Green Bay, living about a mile from the stadium, I'm probably as local as you're going to get,” Mortell said in May. “It's been a lifelong dream of mine, and I'm going to make the most of this opportunity.”

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Mortell signed with the Packers as an undrafted free agent from Minnesota. And while he was shaky at times during training camp — in practice on Aug. 14 he kicked a handful of balls with less than 4 seconds of hang time  — Mortell proved a worthy opponent. He lasted more than twice as long as former Alabama punter Cody Mandell, who competed against Masthay in camp last season. 

But Masthay prevailed yet again and is now the frontrunner to retain his job for a seventh season. He is, as coach Mike McCarthy put it Monday morning, “in the driver’s seat” entering the final exhibition game against the Kansas City Chiefs.

That McCarthy did not declare Masthay the outright winner suggests the organization might still be looking. Masthay's performance against the Chiefs might serve as something of a final audition.

“Saturday we’ll cut down to 53,” Masthay said. “So whether or not I’m on that 53 is in part going to be based off of what I do on Thursday night. As to how much weight it carries, I don’t have a clue. That’s not my — I don’t know those answers. But I know that it matters every time you step on the practice field or more so when you step on the game field. So I’ll be ready to go and ultra focused like I always am.

“And like I mentioned earlier too, I’m not just here to survive cut day. I want to be a strong asset for this team during the season.”

To become a potential asset Masthay said he tweaked some of his mechanics during the offseason. He wanted to improve hang time after watching his 2015 average dip to 4.09 seconds, a slight drop from the year prior and a cliff dive from his mark of 4.35 in 2012.

Masthay, who has a base salary of $1.2 million in 2016, focused on what he called the “energy transfer” of a punt. He emphasized the totality of his movements during the action of kicking the football — from reception of the snap to follow through — instead of thinking solely about the swing of his leg.

“Identifying ways to feel more fluid and powerful,” Masthay said last week. “Because sometimes if the punter is focused on his technique and being sound that way, he may perform the technique well and he may make good ball contact, but if he’s not transferring energy very well, then he’s leaving a lot of hang time and potentially distance on the table. And you can fatigue quicker.

“I’ve noticed this at different points in my career. If I’m in a time where I might have a straighter leg swing or I might be focused on other things, my leg will tire out quicker because I’m not really using the ground and my whole body to swing. It’s more like I’m just swinging my leg. I’m trying to use the ground as energy, largely through my footwork.”

Holistic as the approach may sound, it worked. Mortell punted nine times with an average hang of 4.08 seconds during the three exhibition games. Masthay, who also punted nine times, posted an average hang of 4.37 seconds. (For reference, Masthay averaged 3.98 seconds during exhibition games last year.)

In practice, both players had seven punting periods since camp began Aug. 26. Mortell punted 43 times with an average hang of 4.04 seconds. Masthay punted 46 times with an average hang of 4.43 seconds.

It's quite possible that hang time was the deciding factor. 

“I’ve been extremely pleased with my hang time and the consistency of my hang time,” Masthay said Monday. “You always want to be able to do it all, so you always want the high hang times and the great distance with the great direction. It’s hard to bottle all that up on a consistent basis, but that’s what I’m continually working towards. So I’m very pleased with my hang time, but we’ll look for my placement to be a little better.”

Bob McGinn of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

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