Kevin Huber unleashed one of the two longest punts in Bengals history Sunday in San Diego on a 75-yarder that matched the temperature at Qualcomm Stadium. But now that special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons is emphasizing situational punting, he knows the kicks with the most heat this season are going to be shorter with a much colder ball in the final four games as the Bengals grapple for control of the AFC North.
"No question the ball is going to go a little bit further as warm as it was with no wind," said Huber, who punted extensively in the 30-degree Thanksgiving morning practice at Paul Brown Stadium. "It doesn't feel great kicking a cold ball. It's so easy to be in that (warm) condition and hit the ball as hard as you can and have a bad hit. You've got to go out there knowing if you have a good, clean hit the ball is going to travel."
The ball flew with his career game-highs for gross punting average and net average, both 55.5, moving him into fifth in the league in net with a 41.6-yard average. The 75-yarder tied Kyle Larson's kick eight years ago in another warm weather spot, Jacksonville, for the club's longest punt. And Huber didn't mind that Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick tapped it back to the San Diego 4 as he went into the end zone after wide receiver Keenan Allen misjudged it. Not bad after Huber missed Wednesday's practice with a tender kicking ankle. He said Monday that maybe "it was overcautious," but it feels good now and, more importantly, felt good Sunday.
"The direction wasn't great. Down the hash and low … it carried a little more than (Allen) expected and he had to run late," Huber said of the record punt. "Dre did a great job getting there. He had to run a long way to get there to save the ball from the end zone. I was happy with the rest of the punts."
And so are his coaches. With a new contract and season records for net and gross yards, Huber has gotten even better this season. You know you're having a good year when those can remember punts that led to wins (New England, Buffalo, Detroit), you are three off the NFL lead in the all-important inside-the-20-touchback differential, and you throw in a record punt while adjusting to some new parameters.
"I pulled the reins back on him a little bit and asked him to be very effective directionally and he's done that," Simmons said. "We've asked him to do some different things than he did a year ago and he's adjusted well. That's why we drafted him. We knew he could do those things and he's evolved and matured as a player. He understands exactly what is expected of him."
What is expected of Huber is to set up a red-hot defense ranked sixth in the NFL.
"It makes me want to have the best punt possible to give the offense the worst field position possible; our defense is that good," Huber said. "It puts a little more incentive in me to help them out as much as I can. This year the thing is to have the best punt for the time of the game.
"If that means at the end of the half, a couple of seconds left, kick the ball out of bounds, and if it's 40 yards, it's 40 yards. I'm not going to put the ball in the middle of the field and give them any kind of chance. Situational punting is a lot bigger focus for me this year and that carries over into getting the defense in the best possible position."
Since he was drafted in 2009 in the fifth round, Huber's development has been more of a product of the mental rather than the physical.
"If I have a bad hit, I feel like in the past I wanted to make up for that versus just forgetting about that hit and thinking about the next punt," Huber said. "Sometimes I'd get in my ruts where I'd have a bad hit and feel like I had to make up for it. And that makes it steamroll and get worse because I try to hit the ball harder and farther. Now if I have a bad hit, deal with it."
Simmons also believes extra work in the weight room during the season has helped Huber maintain strength late in the year. In his first three years, his production tailed post-bye week.
"For whatever reason, getting accustomed to the longer season or whatever, he dedicated himself in the offseason to getting stronger and now he does both," Simmons said of Huber's lifting. "Last year he had a real, real good stretch and this year you saw what he did in San Diego (the first game after the bye). It makes you wonder if we had a climate like the one in San Diego what he'd do and that gets lost in the shuffle. But that's another reason we drafted him. He's a guy that knows the conditions of this division and knows what to expect."
Huber, the Cincinnati native who has stayed in town to kick in high school, college and the pros, knows exactly what's coming the last four games.
"I guess that's the one benefit being from here and punting in this weather for a long time," he said. "I've learned how to deal with it. You just have to take the mindset you can't do much about the weather and just take one kick at a time."
Those kicks are piling up in the record book. Longest punt. Best season.
"I'm sure down the road they will," Huber said when asked if it means anything. "But now it's having the best punt possible. But I'm sure down the road if they don't get beat for a while I can look back and say, 'That was me that did that.' For now, I'm not too worried about that."