After winning Tuesday's Punt-a-thon to replace Kevin Huber for the two biggest games of the year against the NFL's two best punt return teams, Shawn Powell has gone from a Knoxville, Tenn., couch to the AFC North-leading Bengals.
"I am very grateful for that. Hopefully I can come in there and hopefully they won't need me as much," Powell said. "I am always there to hold if they need me to hold for a field goal or PAT."
That's how the Bengals made it to the playoffs last year, a 43-yard field goal from emergency kicker Josh Brown in Week 16 in Pittsburgh. Now the 6-4, 235-pound Powell with 100 career NFL punts and none in the last 75 days is the emergency punter and holder in the Week 16 game Sunday (1 p.m.) at Paul Brown Stadium against the Vikings as the Bengals try to hold on to a one-game lead over the Ravens in the AFC North.
"It was important to have a guy who has some game experience and who has punted this year," said special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons, who also did extensive film work in addition to charting Tuesday's punts.
With 35 punts in five games with the Bills this season, Powell had the most 2013 experience in a veteran tryout group that also included former longtime Viking Chris Kluwe, Drew Butler and T.J. Conley. But only Powell and Robert Malone (two games with the Jets) had kicked in this regular season.
And while Powell wasn't lighting it up with a 38.5-yard net heading into the fifth game of his second season, he was developing into a fairly reliable commodity in trying to succeed local legend Brian Moorman. But then on Thursday Night Football in Cleveland on Oct. 3 it all blew up when Travis Benjamin returned seven punts for 179 yards. Moorman was back kicking for the Bills on Oct. 13 against the Bengals while Powell was looking for a job until Tuesday.
"I couldn't even really tell you what happened. They decided they wanted to go a different way and it was very humbling experience," Powell said. "I can tell you the NFL will humble you really quick. It helped me mature very much knowing how the league works and understanding that if I have a bad punt, I don't need to let it ruin a whole game for me. If I had a bad punt I let it all get to me.
"I'm just teaching myself, 'If you have a bad punt, let's get it over with. Go out the next time and have a good punt.' One thing I learned is you're only as good as your last punt. That's one thing I've really been looking at. The NFL will make you find out a lot about yourself and who you are. I don't like being on the outside looking in. I like being on the inside and hopefully I finish strong for the Bengals and hopefully another opportunity will arise."
Powell, 25, broke in with 13 games last season for the Bills out of Florida State, where he was named an All-American with the help of the rugby "run-out" punt once or twice a game. A product of Rome, Ga., where he became acquainted with the Bengals through Larry Kinnebrew's barbeque place, Powell didn't kick in cold weather until he got to Buffalo.
In last year's finale against the Jets in 15-degree wind chill and winds gusting to 30 miles per hour, Powell dropped two of his five punts inside the 20 with a long of 51 yards on his way to a 39.5 net.
"The coldest game I kicked in college was probably when we played Boston College and Maryland. We played Maryland in 23-degree weather," Powell said. "But playing up in Buffalo the last year and five games (this year), it was a learning experience and I'm very grateful for it. I feel like it made me a better punter with the wind there. Also it gets really chilly up there. What they said: If you can punt in Buffalo, you can really punt anywhere."
It also helped that he worked with Moorman, the Frosty The Snowman of NFL punters with 13 seasons in Buffalo.
"I learned a lot from him, and really the thing was the wind was a big thing, he told me. You can't worry about the wind, and everybody in the stadium understands it's windy," Powell said. "If you're dead wind in your face and it goes 25 yards and it's trying to turn over but the wind is turning it back nobody's going to be mad at you. They understand what's going on. He taught me a lot about cold weather-type stuff. I went to Florida State. We really didn't have that many cold-weather games so he taught me the things you have to do to make sure you can still get a consistent ball out of it."
But the left shoe Powell is filling is huge. Despite Sunday's Poseidon Adventure of a disaster, Huber's net of 40.5 yards was still eighth-best in the league. His ratio of inside-the-20s to touchbacks of 24-to-4 was huge. Powell had five touchbacks in five games.
"We're replacing a kid who's been a fine player for us," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "And unquestioned, he's a great person, a kid that we've spent a great deal of time with, with him growing up here, going to (the University of Cincinnati), us coaching him at the Senior Bowl. As I've said many times, I told him he was going to get tired of us, and it has proven true. He's done a great job since we've drafted him."
Powell has lived the life of the out of work punter since his release. He had a tryout in Pittsburgh a few weeks ago when the Steelers opted for Mat McBriar. He auditioned for New England's emergency list during the Patriots bye week. He had a tryout in Washington snowed out last week and when it was back on for this week when his agent told him to go to Cincinnati instead Tuesday morning.
He flew from Knoxville wishing he had driven after arriving at 10 a.m. via Chicago. All he packed was pretty much an extra pair of jeans and the ballcap he held on his knee as he held court with the Cincinnati media. His fiancée is driving up with more clothes and his truck.
A life on the NFL fringe is suddenly in the middle of it all.
"It was nerve-wracking," Powell admitted of Tuesday's tryout. "I've punted places with Robert Malone and come up through college and the combine with Drew Butler. Never kicked with T.J. (Conley) and Chris Kluwe, but all those guys out there are deserving to play in the NFL. I was lucky. I'm blessed to be given another opportunity."
But maybe the biggest stop of all was Cleveland. Simmons understands how a guy can give up a bad game. Even the steel-belted reliable Huber did it Sunday in the midst of his best season.
"When you don't put the ball where you want it and guys are out of position, it can happen," Simmons said.
Cleveland and Benjamin and 179 yards and Oct. 3 haven't been far from Powell's mind.
"When I drove down from Buffalo to go home, you go through Cleveland. It was just like - gad-dummit," he said, lowering his head. "But I watched that game. I looked at what I did wrong. I've been working on what I was doing wrong. Really what I was doing is getting a good average—58 yards was the one he took back to the house—but the nose was coming down a little bit so I wasn't having good hang time. I've been working on fixing that and finding that happy medium where I'm able to maybe not get as much distance but more hang time, because that's what the NFL looks for."
With Vikings cornerback Marcus Sherels looming Sunday with the NFL's third-best punt return average and Ravens wide receiver Tandon Doss bringing in the NFL lead a week later, it's no secret the Bengals don't want to kick it in the middle of the field. Powell thinks it helps he comes from a pair of coaches in Buffalo—Bruce DeHaven last year and Danny Crossman this year—that preached directional punting.
"I kind of knew what I was going to do and how to do it," Powell said of the tryout. "Really it was just getting out there and showing them what I've learned from my mistakes. Everybody saw the Cleveland Browns game. I mean it was Thursday Night Football. I'm having to show people that I've learned from my mistakes and matured through it and I understand now what I need to do to be successful in this league."
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