A few months ago, Tim Masthay looked like he might be the latest in a series of shaky Green Bay Packers punters. If he didn't pick up his performance, the team might not have been far from replacing him.
Now Masthay might be the Packers' most improved player, turning what has been one of the team's biggest weaknesses in recent seasons into a solid strength going into the Packers' Feb. 6 Super Bowl matchup with Pittsburgh.
The Packers' first-year punter had one of his best games of the season in Sunday's NFC championship game victory at Chicago, bottling up Bears returner Devin Hester by placing five of his eight punts inside the 20-yard line.
Hester had only three punt returns for 16 yards, meaning Masthay and the Packers' punt coverage unit essentially took away the Bears' most formidable big-play threat.
"He may be the most improved player on our team, if you want to look (back to) the beginning of the season, just from a pure production standpoint," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "Tim was huge in the Chicago game."
A standout punter at Kentucky, Masthay signed with Indianapolis in 2009 but was cut during training camp.
When the Packers signed him to a reserve/future contract in January 2010, Masthay was working as a part-time tutor and hoping he'd get another shot.
"I was just thinking about that," Masthay said. "Technically I was under contract with the Packers at this time (last year), but I hadn't been up here yet. I was still tutoring 20 hours a week at the university and going to the gym by myself. It's kind of surreal. I'm sure when the season's over, I'll really reflect a lot. But I'm just excited to be going to Dallas for the Super Bowl."
Masthay won a training camp battle with Chris Bryan, a former Australian rules football player who was trying to make the transition to American football; Bryan ended up spending a few weeks with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"We go back to when he got here last spring, and he was in great competition, and he went through a real growth process there," Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said of Masthay. "I think competition brings the best out of players. And then we got into training camp, he won the job. We start the season and he had to learn how to be an NFL punter."
But Masthay didn't get off to a great start, and it wasn't so long ago that his spot on the team seemed anything but secure. After Masthay struggled in an Oct. 17 loss to Miami, McCarthy made it clear that he needed to get better soon.
"The punting was not good yesterday," McCarthy said the next day. "I think that's obvious. Tim has been inconsistent."
There was speculation about Masthay's future with the team, but Slocum said he was more focused on helping Masthay improve than trying to find a replacement at the time.
"It's my job as the coach to get the player to perform," Slocum said. "Tim and I worked hard to continue to improve. He did it, and I think it's a non-story now."
Masthay typically had been good in practice during the week but sometimes struggled to carry it over to games. He continued to work with Slocum on his footwork.
"Tim is fundamentally sound in that his mechanics are really in a straight line," Slocum said. "That's an excellent starting point. One of the things we did is to compact his footwork into the kick, and that, in my opinion, helps a guy stay most consistent."
Inconsistency at punter was nothing new for the Packers, who had used a total of five punters in games from 2005 to 2009. One of the players the Packers used during that time, Jeremy Kapinos, now punts for the Packers' Super Bowl opponent, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"I'm not surprised at all," Slocum said of Kapinos. "Jeremy was always really diligent in his work. He's a young guy, and I think he was learning. Watching him on tape with the Steelers the latter part of the season, I think he's improved. I'm not surprised at all."
The Packers finally seem to have found a solution in Masthay, whose improvement has helped the confidence of the Packers' punt coverage unit.
"I think there's a karma that's been built," Slocum said. "I think part of it is Tim's effectiveness as a punter. He's continued to get better with his placement and his hang times and ball positions. I think our players have gained confidence in being able to go to a specific point on the field. We've added some guys throughout the season that have come in and been impactful with us on special teams. As a group, it's just grown. And success has a tendency to breed success."