Like any Green Bay fan could tell you, watching the Packers' special teams over the years, especially before winning the Super Bowl, has been an excruciating task. From horrible kickoff coverage to missed field goals, it’s been common for the fans to look to the current specials teams coach and to call for his head. And a position where the Packers had consistently experienced a great lack of production since 2008 is punter.
Punters had come and gone, but nobody had been able to get the job done to the coach’s satisfaction. Why couldn’t the Packers find any consistency in their punting game?
It started on September 1, 2008, a day that caused many fans to question—and still question—the decision making of Packers GM Ted Thompson. It was on that date that the Packers released their punter, Jon Ryan. Ryan was coming off a great season in 2007, when he posted the highest net yards average in Packers history since 1969. His gross yards average of 44.4 was fourth best in team history.
It was Ryan’s remarkable season that led Packers faithful to wonder why the front office felt they needed to release him. The team had finally found a punter that it had faith in to pin the opposing team deep, and it made him a free agent. While the move was puzzling, the reason behind the move confused the fans even more.
When asked why he let his punter go, Ted Thompson said he got rid of Ryan “because of the availability of Derrick Frost.”
True to his word, the Packers signed Frost on the same day they released Ryan. What Packers fans couldn’t comprehend, though, was why. Frost wasn’t coming off a horrible 2007 season with the Washington Redskins in which he averaged 41.0 yards per punt and a 36.4 net yards average. But it wasn’t anywhere near Ryan’s production during the same year. In fact, Frost had never had a season in which he matched Ryan’s 2007 season.
Teddy must have seen something in Frost that told him he had a lot of potential to be successful in Green Bay. Little did he know that he forgot to put his contacts in that morning, because Frost was horrible in his short tenure with the Packers.
Frost only lasted 12 games (in which the Packers went 5-7 after a 13-3 season with Ryan the year before), and he was terribly inconsistent—or consistently terrible. One punt would be a booming kick that traveled over 50 yards (very rare), and the next one would be just over 30 yards (more common).
He got worse as the season progressed. Not once did he average over 35 net yards per punt in the last four games he played. Packer fans booed him during a home game against the Carolina Panthers when he made a miserable attempt to punt the ball which resulted in the Panthers offense starting their drive in Green Bay territory without a return. That was Frost’s last game as a Packer, and deservedly so.
In just four months time, the Packers' punting game went from being one of the better units in the National Football League to embarrassing.
If you include this with the controversial Brett Favre trade and the fact that the Packers went 6-10 in 2008 after an appearance in the NFC Championship game in 2007, it can be understood why some people wanted Ted Thompson shown the door. Teddy was kept as the GM heading into the 2009 season, but he had to find a way to win. And finding that way started with finding a punter.
Since Derrick Frost was gone after only the first 12 games of the 2008 season, the Packers had to find his replacement. They signed Jeremy Kapinos two days after Frost was gone, and he finished out the season horribly. He averaged 39.2 gross yards per punt and an awful 34.5 net yards per punt over the last four games of 2008 (1-3 team record).
With that type of performance, many Cheeseheads were expecting Thompson to bring in a new punter for the 2009 season. While technically he did bring in Durant Brooks, he was only brought in to compete with Kapinos during training camp. After a 2009 preseason in which Kapinos led the NFL in net yards average, he was named the starting punter. Oh boy.
The case could be made that Kapinos was even worse in 2009 than he was at the end of 2008. While he wasn’t the punting nightmare that Frost was, he didn’t do much to silence Thompson’s critics.
Leading the league in the preseason didn’t mean much because when it counted, Kapinos averaged a horrible 34.1 net yards per punt. Some of that can be attributed to the Packers punt coverage unit, but Kapinos’ inconsistency and failure to make an impact in the field position battle was reason enough for him to be let go after the season.
The Packers did make the playoffs that year but lost in the first round.
One person who was watching the Packers punting situation very closely was a man from Murray, Kentucky. He was a three-sport star at Murray High School, playing football, basketball and baseball. Luckily for the Packers, he was a very good punter for the University of Kentucky.
Tim Masthay improved his average yards per punt all four years at Kentucky, and in his senior season, he made the First Team All-SEC. He majored in economics and was a two-time SEC Academic Honor Roll student. He would fail to get drafted, but he signed with the Indianapolis Colts on May 1, 2009.
It didn’t take very long for Masthay to be out of a job when he was waived by the Colts on August 10, 2009. Not one team felt it could use him, and he remained unemployed.
During the 2009 NFL season, Masthay watched at home, wishing he could be making some of those game-changing punts he saw on TV. Instead, he was working as a tutor at his old college for $10 an hour. He wanted to move on from college, but no NFL team gave him a call. His wife, Amanda, worked as a bank teller and supported them while he worked as hard as he could to achieve his dream.
He worked six days a week doing exercises and keeping in shape. He participated in tryouts, but there were never any job opportunities. He didn’t want to string along Amanda forever, but he couldn’t help but wonder if he was ever going to get a job offer.
Fortunately for Masthay, the Packers couldn’t wait to get rid of Kapinos after the 2009 season, and they signed Masthay to a reserve contract on January 15, 2010. Masthay went up against Chris Bryan in the Packers training camp for the starting punter position. Because of Masthay’s smarts, strong leg and performance, he beat out Bryan and was the starting punter for the Packers heading into 2010.
He had finally gotten that call—and he delivered.
He may not have delivered right away, though. In four of his first six games, he had a net yards average of 36 or less. Many fans will also remember when Masthay delivered a horrible line-drive punt straight to Devin Hester in Week 3 that was run back for a touchdown. It was looking like Masthay was not the answer the Packers were searching for and that their punting game seemed destined to be miserable.
Enter Week 8. Destination: New York.
The Packers offense was not getting it done. They were going against the stifling New York Jets defense, and they were in a hostile environment away from home. The Packers defense was also completely shutting down Mark Sanchez and the Jets offense, but three field goals on offense was not going to cut it.
Luckily for Aaron Rodgers and Co., Masthay had finally put on the right punting shoes for this game.
Masthay punted eight times for a net yards average of 41.5, his first game of the season averaging over 40. He pinned the Jets inside their own 20 five times, and he allowed zero return yards.
No surprise—he won NFC Special Teams Player of the Week for his efforts. Huh, a Packers player winning an award for special teams?
Masthay’s punting game was not a fluke, either.
Over the final nine games of the season, he averaged 39.9 net yards a punt per game (would’ve finished third in the NFL) and landed 20 of his 45 punts inside the 20-yard line. His season average of 37.6 net yards per punt edged out Jon Ryan’s 2007 season as the best in franchise history since 1969. (Note: Masthay’s struggles in the first six games led to a 3-3 team record; with Masthay “kicking” into stride, the team went 7-3.)
If there was any doubt that the Packers had found their punter, it was all erased in the 2010 NFC playoffs. In the Wild Card Round and in the NFC Championship game, Masthay effectively shut down the top two punt returners in the NFL today to the tune of an average of 8.8 yards per punt return. He was especially good in the NFC Championship game when he held Devin Hester to 5.3 yards per punt return and dropped five punts inside the Bears 20.
If you want to look for reasons why the Packers represented the NFC in Dallas in 2011, look no further than Tim Masthay. This is not to discredit Aaron Rodgers or Clay Matthews. This is just simply displaying the importance of punting to this Packer team.
The last time this team had a good punter, it made the NFC Championship game. It has been a few years, but the Packers finally struck gold, and there they were in the Super Bowl.
All that hard work had payed off for Masthay, and he had the makings of a star in just his rookie season. He had the opportunity to show Pittsburgh fans why the Packers picked Masthay to replace Kapinos when the two faced off in the Super Bowl, and he delivered.
That is an area where the Packers have the advantage. Let me repeat that: The Packers have an advantage in a special teams category. At long last, it’s probably time Ted Thompson can be forgiven for the Derrick Frost fiasco.
Let’s just hope that Teddy doesn’t make the same mistake he made with Ryan on Masthay. Masthay is the real deal.
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