It was shaping up to be the best season of Tim Masthay's career.
At the halfway mark of the 2014 season, the Green Bay Packers' punter was on pace to not only reset his team record for net punting average for the fifth consecutive season (42.2 yards per punt), but also his single-season mark for gross average (47.0).
While the team has rallied since its 44-23 loss to New Orleans in Week 8, the second half of the year hasn't been as kind to Masthay. His last 21 punts have come with a 40.1 gross average and 33.6 net.
The 27-year-old Masthay was discussing his career-low 49 punts this season with a small group of reporters on Monday when he offered an assessment of his play. He admitted he felt accountable for some of the special-teams lapses over the past two months, including Marcus Thigpen's 75-yard punt return for a touchdown two weeks ago in Buffalo and his blocked punt against Philadelphia.
Like many other specialists before him, Masthay is encountering the first long slump of his career. Now, he needs pull himself out of it.
"It's been kind of a frustrating year for me because the first half of the year went very well, and the second half of the year has not gone very well at all," Masthay said. "The regular season's over and it's time to clean-sheet it and make a little run here in the playoffs. So I'm looking forward to the next game."
Masthay finished the year with a 44.1 gross average and 37.0 net with a career-low percentage of punts inside the 20 (14-of-49 for 28.6 percent) and a league-high in touch-back percentage (4-of-49 for 8.2 percent).
In Sunday's 30-20 win over Detroit, Masthay's three punts went for a 39.0 gross average and 27.7 net. His first punt to former Packers returner Jeremy Ross was brought back 14 yards to the Detroit 49 at the start of the third quarter.
Special-teams coach Shawn Slocum believes there is some technique involved in Masthay's slump and a few areas that can be "fine-tuned."
"His first punt was not good enough. I think Tim needs to punt better," Slocum said. "He needs to move forward and we've talked about that. His second and third punts, the first of the two, I called that punt to kick out of bounds to take Jeremy out of the play with 2:40 or so in the game. And then the one there at the end, they brought a bunch of people and I thought Tim did a nice job of getting it off fast and taking the returner out of the play."
The Packers stood by kicker Mason Crosby during a disastrous 2012 season when he missed 12 field goals on 33 attempts for a league-worst 63.6 percent. Crosby rebounded with the best year of his career in 2013, completing 33-of-37 attempts for 89.2 percent.
Masthay is close friends with Crosby and talked with him about it, but it wasn't just advice he was seeking. Sometimes the most helpful part is just bouncing things off each other and "getting things off our chest."
Ultimately, Masthay knows it comes down to him.
"(I'm) not as high on confidence as I have been in the past," Masthay said. "I'd be flat-out lying if I didn't say that, and that's just because things haven't gone very well the second half of the season, whether it's been the touchdown we gave up, the second block we gave up, just some poor punts, it's been kind of myriad of negative plays that I have directly contributed to. So going forth, that's what I think anyway. I think I've got to regain confidence. The trick is doing that but that's what I've got to do. I've got to figure out how to regain confidence and be the punter that I've been in the past."
Masthay feels refreshed with the playoff schedule and said he's "not worried" about regaining form. He arrived on a future contract in 2010 and played well enough to earn a four-year extension in 2012.
Now, he wants to turn a corner. It starts in the playoffs.
"Slumps are common to professional athletes or just athletes in general, whether you're a professional athlete, college athlete, high-school athlete, whatever," Masthay said. "Most players experience a downturn in performance at some point, and one of the things that give some players staying power is their ability to bounce back from a slump. So that's what I'm going to try to do."
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