Starting with this Sunday’s contest against San Francisco at Lambeau Field, four of the Packers’ final five games will be played outdoors in what will likely be less-than-ideal conditions. Three of those games will take place in Green Bay, the first time since 2006 that the Packers have played three regular-season home games after Dec. 1, with a Week 15 night contest at New England mixed in.
For Crosby, he can lean on his experiences from his first three seasons in Green Bay, but for first-year punter Tim Masthay, who played collegiately in the Southeastern Conference at Kentucky, this will be his first go-around in dealing with cold weather.
Masthay won the punting job during the preseason over former Australian Rules Football player Chris Bryan, but the groundwork for the final month of the season was laid much earlier in the year. When the Packers began their offseason program in March, one aspect of it for the two young punters was to kick outside on Nitschke Field to get acclimated to the conditions that they hoped to be eventually dealing with.
“The biggest factor is you start to develop a mindset,” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. “The thing I wanted to achieve with those guys was to take them out and say, ‘OK, here is what you’ll potentially face next December.’ Now we are here. We can lean back and say, ‘We went out back when we first got here and we dealt with some of this stuff.’
“So there is already a plan in place. Things like, ‘Does he wear a glove on one hand or not?’ Well, he is wearing a glove on one hand. Just little things like that. Dealing with your equipment, for a kicker it’s important in cold-weather conditions because of keeping your muscles warm. What are you wearing on the sideline when you are not in a game for four series? How do you stay warm? Do you stay up next to the heater and stay really warm or do you stay semi-warm? How much do you kick into the net? All of those things are premeditated and decided.”
Another aspect of the preparation for the colder games is spending part of Friday practices in the stadium, which enables the specialists to test the grass and their footing as they try to get a better feel for what gameday will bring.
“We’ll go into Lambeau and we’ll go through the game in our minds and we’ll hit some balls, kicks and punts,” Slocum said. “On gameday when we go out two hours prior to the game, we’ll go out and start making decisions based on wind conditions like which way we are going to punt, which direction we are going to kick off.
“When we get to the game, I typically let those guys keep their mindset on their performance unless there is something that I need to address.”
Punting in the south during college, Masthay said his “cold” experiences were limited to some late-fall morning practices when temperatures were between 25-35 degrees as well as a couple of games late in the season where the weather was cooler. Knowing that none of it has been quite like what he will face this next month, Masthay’s focus remains on fundamentals and not making any drastic changes to his technique while acknowledging some of the challenges that inevitably lie ahead.
“One of the main things that I will be focused on is I have to attack the ball every time,” said Masthay, who has a 43.3-yard average with a 36.9 net average this season. “The balls are harder. It’s not going to travel as far and carry because of the temperature and how hard the ball is, so I can’t really afford to not swing hard at the ball. I’ve got to try to really hit through the ball and keep my footwork short.
“Then when the wind is blowing, you’ve got to pay more attention to your drop. Those are the biggest changes for me.”
When Crosby arrived in Green Bay in 2007, he brought a little more familiarity with cold weather than Masthay from punting at Colorado in the Big 12, but he admits that paled in comparison to what he has dealt with in his first three seasons with the Packers.
“You have to try to match the ball as perfect as possible because it’s not going to fly as far most of the time,” Crosby said. “If you hit the sweet spot just right you can get the ball to go as far as it normally does. Definitely everything has to tighten down a little bit and get a little bit more precise.
“I was talking today to Tim about each kick, you have to focus on that next one. You game plan but as you are in the game, you have to say, ‘OK, this next kick, I have to go out and be precise and everything has to be dialed in a little bit more.’ Footing, elements, everything is going to come into play and you have to be very detailed.”
In Crosby’s first two NFL seasons, he went a combined 5-for-10 on field goals in six December outdoor games (four home, two at Chicago), with a 44-yarder vs. Oakland in 2007 his only kick of longer than 40 yards. In four outdoor games down the stretch last season, Crosby connected on 6-of-9 attempts, highlighted by a 52-yarder against Seattle in Week 16 in 18-degree weather.
“Mason’s experience in kicking in these conditions definitely gives him an advantage in performance,” Slocum said. “He is going to be focused on how to execute in these conditions as opposed to allowing the conditions to affect him. I think that is the biggest advantage he has got.”
For Masthay, his cold-weather experience will have to be gained week by week over the final month of the season. But the challenge that will be put to him and Crosby is a simple one: outperform your counterparts to give your team an edge.
“I think what is most important is the head-to-head performance on gameday, particularly when you play in a place like Lambeau,” Slocum said. “Mason Crosby needs to beat the kicker that we play and Tim Masthay needs to beat the punter that we play and the returner that we play.
“Their performance on that day in those conditions compared to their opponent’s performance to me is really indicative of us having success.”
Additional coverage – Dec. 2