Off his career year and a 17-game season away from tying Ken Riley as the Bengals' all-time leader in games played, Cincinnati's own Kevin Huber agreed to come back to the Bengals Monday for a 13th season as their punter.
Huber, who turns 36 a few weeks before training camp, chalked up career-highs in averages of gross and net yards in besting the marks of his one Pro Bowl season in 2014. He took a one-year deal but wants to punt until he's at least 40.
"I think the last two years have shown I'm not trending in the down direction. I've got plenty of time left," Huber said.
The Huber deal signals the Bengals are settled into the second week of the NFL's new year with the draft creeping into center stage as a bevy of big schools are hosting pro days this week.
After walking out of free agency last week with five starters and an additional $30 million or so in charges under the 2021 salary cap, the Bengals continue to scour the free-agent board but the big-ticket items of last week are likely gone.
Still, important deals like the one for Huber can get done. Even after they finished off the five deals last Friday, they were in the hunt for the market's best receiver. A deal probably would have necessitated another veteran release on top of letting go defensive tackle Geno Atkins and right tackle Bobby Hart, but when Kenny Golladay got $18 million per year from the Giants, the Bengals (reportedly ready to pay $13 million) moved on.
Huber's return gives the Bengals' much-needed consistency for a kicking game in transition after a year they were ranked No. 9 by Football Outsiders.
Special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons has also retained his best all-round player in kick returner and second-leading tackler Brandon Wilson and long snapper Clark Harris, but lost in free agency his punt returner of the last five seasons in wide receiver Alex Erickson and last year's leading tackler in tight end Cethan Carter.
Heading into his 19th season here, Simmons is also looking at just his fourth regular kicker after Randy Bullock signed in Detroit. Indications are they'll bring in someone to compete with Austin Seibert, as well as cornerback Darius Phillips, the next man up, on punt return. Phillips has enormous ability in the return game, but he's had trouble hanging on to the ball and staying healthy after missing 13 of 48 games in his three-year career.
A look at some of the best images of punter Kevin Huber since his rookie season with the Bengals.
"It's a very unique year," Simmons said. "We'll figure out what gives us the best chance with the most talent on the roster and go from there."
Some eyebrows were raised last week when Huber didn't sign right away, but he said they were on a new landscape with the salary cap reduced by $15 million and it needed to play out.
"It was such a different market and it took time getting that figured out," Huber said. "Things just took longer than normal because it wasn't normal. Nothing out of the ordinary. (Being here) was the goal all along."
After Huber signed his deal, Bengals president Mike Brown checked into the conference room and said he was glad to have him back. He asked about his family (Huber is one of the few Bengals who played both high school ball in Cincinnati and at the University of Cincinnati) and he also picked his brain on any new trends in the punting world.
Brown recalled how Simmons introduced Huber to the end-over-end kick when they drafted him in the fifth round out of UC in 2009, a rather new twist at the time to counter the spiral, and congratulated Huber for how he's perfected it. Both Huber and Simmons don't see anything quite that new on the horizon.
"There have been a variety of kicks that have come out since then," Simmons said. "But I still think you have to use what Kevin can effectively execute in a game. There are a lot of kicks you can try. Sometimes you can do too many different things and you aren't good with any of them. There's a delicate balance there.
"He had a relatively high rate of touchbacks his junior and senior year of college. He just needed to try and find a way to control the ball a little bit and the end-over-end can sometimes help soften the bounce."
Talk about soft landings. Huber is fifth on the active list in punts inside-the-20.
"He's like a fine bourbon," Simmons said. "He gets better with age."
Huber raises a glass to Simmons, crediting him for his career year with the punt team he put together.
"We had a really good unit. We had guys that were playing fast all year," Huber said. "Darrin got them playing at a high level. All the guys cared. Even though the year as a whole didn't go as the team wanted, the guys on special teams really took pride in it. That's definitely the reason I played that way."
With the NFL reportedly set to announce a 17-game season, Huber is on the verge of history. He's only missed two games in his career, so you can virtually put him down for 207 games, tying him with the late, great Riley. Riley, a Pro Football Hall of Fame candidate who played 15 seasons on the Bengals corner, retired in 1983, two years before Huber was born.
But first there are two other team icons to pass. He'll go by all-time Bengals passing king Ken Anderson in the third game of the year in his 193rd game and when he ties Riley he'll go by the 206 of the Honorable Reggie Williams, the former Cincinnati councilman and 14-year linebacker.
Then, of course there is the 2022 opener. Game 208? Huber says he can punt at least four more seasons.
"I would definitely want to say I played in the most games," Huber said. "That's a pretty cool feat."