GREEN BAY – Tim Masthay dressed quietly in the visitors’ locker room at MetLife Stadium late Sunday evening, just a few stalls away from the two heroes of the moment – quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who’d surgically picked the New York Giants defense apart in the final minute of the game, and kicker Mason Crosby, who’d booted the game-winning 31-yard field goal as time expired.
So the Green Bay Packers second-year punter understood why he wasn’t the center of the postgame attention. Nevertheless, amid the media crush, only one reporter who spoke to him.
“Telling me I had deodorant marks on my pants,” Masthay said with a chuckle. “But that’s OK. That’s fine with me. Because that tells me, they expect me to play well, too. So it’s not a big huge deal when it happens.
“I just want to be productive as a punter. I don’t really care about any glory that comes with it.”
As many weapons as the Packers have on offense, that’s where most of the glory goes for the NFL’s lone undefeated team. While Rodgers & Co. have the Packers averaging an NFL-best 35.0 points per game and ranked fourth in total offense at 405.3 yards per game, they have another for when their high-powered scoring machine occasionally breaks down: Masthay.
Granted, the success of the offense has also rendered Masthay a spectator on many Sundays – only two teams’ punters have kicked fewer times than Masthay, who enters Sunday’s game against the Oakland Raiders averaging 45.0 gross yards and 36.9 net yards on his 41 punts – but the Packers know they can count on him to flip the field or pin their opponents deep when necessary, especially as the Wisconsin weather turns wintry.
“Tim’s a big-time weapon,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Thursday. “Field position is so important. Especially as we enter into winter football, it will be an even bigger emphasis. He’s been doing a great job putting that ball inside the 10-yard line.”
Masthay’s numbers don’t jump off the NFL stat page – he ranks tied for No. 18 in gross punting average and No. 29 in net average among punters with at least 20 punts – but he showed exactly how valuable he is with his performance against the Giants at MetLife Stadium, a venue where he has had success before.
The league named Masthay the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week after placing four of his five punts inside the 20-yard line, had a net average of 44.2 yards per punt and allowed zero return yards while averaging 4.51 seconds of hang time on his five punts in the Packers’ 38-35 victory.
Four of Masthay’s five punts inside the 15-yard line, including a 49-yard punt in the third quarter that was downed by Jarrett Bush at the Giants’ 1-yard line. The only punt that wasn’t downed inside the 20-yard line was a 55-yarder from his own 20-yard line. Masthay’s punts gave the Giants starting field position at the 14-, 14-, 25-, 1- and 13-yard lines.
It marked the second straight week in which Masthay punted five times and landed four inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. After his net average took a beating early in the season because of a 72-yard return for a touchdown by New Orleans’ Darren Sproles in the opener, Masthay’s net average over the past six games is 43.6 yards on 20 punts. San Francisco’s Andy Lee leads the NFL in net punting with a 43.3-yard average on 58 punts.
“I wasn’t pleased with how I hit the ball the first two weeks of this season, but since then it’s been good and we’ve been playing well as a punt unit for quite a stretch now,” Masthay said. “I just think it’s been a combination. The snapping and protection’s been good, like always. The gunners have been playing great. And, I’ve been hitting the ball well. When you put all those things together, it makes for a productive punt unit, and we’ve been doing that for a while now.”
On Sunday, Masthay will share the field with Oakland’s Shane Lechler, widely considered the best punter in the game and in the conversation as the best in NFL history. An eight-time All-Pro pick and six-time Pro Bowl selection, Lechler enters the game leading the NFL in gross average (50.8 yards) and tied for seventh in net average (40.4) this season. He is also the NFL’s all-time leader in career punting average
Unlike many punters, who bounce around early in their careers before finally finding their footing with a team, Lechler joined the Raiders as a fifth-round pick in 2000 from Texas A&M and has held the job ever since. Masthay, meanwhile, wasn’t drafted coming out of Kentucky, didn’t even make it to training camp as a rookie with the Indianapolis Colts in 2009 before being cut, and had to win a training-camp competition with former Australian Rules Football player Chris Bryan last year to win the Packers’ job.
“If you just compare the two, Shane was probably further along at the end of his college career in terms of being able to manage the NFL game as a punter,” said Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum, who coached Lechler with the Aggies. “I think Tim made a rapid ascent in that ability, and I think that was evident last year as we went through the end of the year in how his production was, particularly against some of the good returners we played. I see him doing that same thing. We want to continue to get better all the time and I think he continues to do that, and I’ve been impressed with his improvement.”
According to Slocum, young punters like Masthay come into the league fully capable of booting the ball high and far, but they take a while to hone their craft and understand the nuances of which types of punts are needed at different times.
“When you’re a punter in the NFL, it’s not all about pounding every kick. It’s about kicking the proper ball for the field conditions, the opponent, the wind, where you are on the field. All those things have to be learned,” Slocum said. “This game is different than college football. A big part of it is, when the college season is over, at the end of November, we’ve still got quite a bit of football left, and those games are winter games and you’ve got a lot of challenges in front of you in terms of weather.”
That’s when Masthay is at his best. While Slocum admitted that the team had concerns about Masthay kicking in cold weather after playing in the Southeastern Conference, those worries evaporated quickly last season. Now, with all four of their remaining games to be played in cold weather – three at home, with their only road game at Kansas City Dec. 18 – Masthay should be in his element.
“The cold’s always difficult, and when the wind picks up, that makes it tough, too. But the goal is to continue to be productive,” Masthay said. “Last year we had success late in the year when it was freezing cold and windy, so hopefully we can do that again.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.