GREEN BAY – Mason Crosby still remembers the feeling. The only person more stunned by the news than him was Jon Ryan.
The Green Bay Packers’ 2008 training camp had just ended. (Perhaps you remember what happened that summer at the quarterback position; it was a smaller story, but we know you were following it.) Crosby, who’d won the kicking job as a rookie sixth-round pick the year before, and his best friend on the team, punter/holder Jon Ryan, appeared to be giving the Packers a young pair of specialists that the team could count on for years to come.
And then, after the final cuts, the Packers made another roster move on Sept. 1: They inexplicably cut Ryan, in favor of journeyman punter Derrick Frost.
For Crosby, once the shock wore off, the lesson sunk in.
“That memory was the first time I saw what the NFL could be as far as a business,” the Packers kicker recalled earlier this week, as he got ready to watch his old friend punt for the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII against the Denver Broncos. “It’s almost, you don’t think there’s a rhyme or reason to it. He was let go there right after training camp, after he had a good camp. We just went a different direction.”
At the time of the move, Packers general manager Ted Thompson said Ryan could “hit punts like nobody I have ever seen” but claimed the team was “just looking for a little bit more consistency” than Ryan had showed in his first two seasons. After coming over from the Canadian Football League, Ryan averaged 44.5 gross and 37.0 net yards on 144 regular-season punts, including 2007 averages of 44.4 gross yards and 37.6 net yards per punt. During the 2008 preseason, Ryan had averaged 48.0 gross yards and 37.7 net yards on 23 punts, with five touchbacks, seven punts inside the 20-yard line and a long of 72.
While not every personnel move Thompson has made has been right, he couldn’t have been more wrong on Ryan. Frost was abysmal, averaging 42.1 gross yards and 36.1 net yards on 48 punts, ranking him 26th in both gross and net average.
The Packers finally admitted their mistake and cut him with four games left in the season and turned to Jeremy Kapinos, who then held the job in 2009 as well, when he finished tied for 32nd in the NFL in net average (34.1 yards per punt) and 16th in gross punting at 43.8 yards per punt). Not until current punter Tim Masthay won the job in 2010 did the Packers finally fix the position.
“We kind of had a rollercoaster there for a little bit,” said Crosby, who went through three holders during the 2008 season. “But it worked out with Tim, finally. All the pieces fell where they should, and Jon’s done a great job in Seattle. I know they’re really happy with him there.”
Indeed, the Seahawks signed Ryan a week after the Packers cut him and has been in Seattle ever since. In January 2010, he signed a six-year, $9.1 million extension that included a $1.6 million signing bonus and runs through the 2015 season.
“With how well he’s punted, I always give him a hard time how they’re getting one of the best values in the league,” Crosby said with a laugh.
“I’ve still got to pinch myself every now and again. Just to be able to play in the NFL and do it for eight years has been a dream, and I will never take any of it for granted because it can end at any time,” Ryan said earlier this week at one of the Seahawks’ media availability sessions at the Westin hotel in Jersey City, N.J. “To be in this game now, it just seems so surreal. It totally hasn’t sunk in yet.”
This season, Ryan ranked only 29th in gross average with 42.7 yards per punt (Masthay was 22nd at 44.6) and was 19th in net average with at 39.2 yards per punt. (Masthay finished 21st at 39.0). But in a category that shows Ryan consistently put the ball right where the Seahawks wanted it, opposing punt returners averaged just 3.9 yards per return against him. Only St. Louis’ Johnny Hekker (2.9) was more effective.
“The 10 guys in front of me covering kicks have done an exceptional job,” Ryan said. “Those guys are just some of the best guys in the game at what they do. It makes it a lot easier for me to have the confidence in them to punt the ball and know they are going to be down there making those tackles.”
Ryan is one of only four players on the Seahawks’ roster who pre-date coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider, who was with the Packers when they signed Ryan out of the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 2006. As the only Canadian-born player in Sunday’s game, Ryan has gotten a significant amount of media attention – for a punter, anyway – during the week.
“It’s been pretty cool,” Ryan told reporters. “I’ve got a lot of support from family back home. I’ve got 15 family and friends coming out to be here for the game. Everyone back home is pretty excited. They are even flying a 12th Man flag at city hall back in my hometown (of Regina). My family has been telling me they are the most famous people in town this week. They are even doing interviews. They are all pretty pumped about it.
“The city and the province have been so behind me through all of this that I could have never imagined that type of support. It means quite a bit to me.”
They won’t just be rooting for him in Canada. There’ll also be a kicker down at his offseason home in Texas on Sunday, watching and pulling for his old teammate, groomsman and friend.
“Obviously when I look back, it’s kind of funny, because we only played one season together, but we were so close that he was in my wedding,” Crosby said. “We just really hit it off. When I made the team, he was great support to me.
“We talk probably or text on a weekly basis. We text back and forth – about games, family, or just life. Our relationship has stayed strong over these last six years now. It’s crazy. I definitely stayed close with him and always root him on.
“I talked to him right after the NFC Championship Game, and with us being able to go to the Super Bowl (after the 2010 season), after we won one, I know he always wished he could’ve stayed a Packer. But it’s worked out for him in Seattle, and I’ll be pulling for him on Sunday.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.