It always works out this way, doesn't it?
When Kevin Huber suffered a season-ending broken jaw on Dec. 15, he was punting at a Pro Bowl level and the next two games were against the NFL's top two punt return teams. Now that the Bengals have made another change and head into Sunday's 1 p.m. wild card game against the Chargers at Paul Brown Stadium with a new punter, it's so fitting that San Diego's Mike Scifres has the NFL's highest percentage of career punts that have landed inside the 20.
Not only that, Scifres is having a franchise year with 48.3 yards per punt and just one touchback while drilling 30 inside the 20. No wonder Cincinnati's new man, Zoltan Mesko, politely excused himself after taking a bunch of questions Wednesday.
"If you guys don't mind, I'm going to stay in my routine. I just want to stay on schedule," he said as he headed to lunch.
Which impressed special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons to no end.
"I think he's a smart guy. That was pretty evident right away," Simmons said after watching Mesko work in Wednesday's practice.
Mesko is no newcomer to the playoffs as a fifth-round draft pick of the Patriots in 2010. He's been to three of the postseason for a total of six games and his last effort in last year's AFC title game netted him four touchbacks. But what probably sold Simmons more than anything on Mesko is that he punted for three years under Simmons's mentor, Patriots special teams coach Scott O'Brien.
Simmons first met O'Brien when he was still a punter at Kansas in 1994 and worked at Browns head coach Bill Belichick's training camp. Simmons worked under O'Brien in Baltimore and Carolina before he came to Cincinnati with Marvin Lewis in 2003.
"He came up under a good guy. Somebody I have a lot of respect for and I know prepared him the right way," Simmons said. "You could see that coming through practice today. It's just a plug-and-play thing and he's very comfortable in there. A lot of the things we do are very similar to what they did."
The mere fact the Bengals fired Shawn Powell and hired Mesko just a few days before the biggest game of the season shows the enormous faith they have in Simmons. And, yes, the 10-yard punt last Sunday against Baltimore didn't do Powell any favors.
"Any time you make a change like that it's a tough deal. I hated that it didn't work out for Shawn. I know he wanted it to and I wanted it to for him," Simmons said. "But there comes a time we're trying to win a series of games and a 10-yard punt is like a blocked punt to me. When we're playing critical games and field position is such a factor, that figures into it. Sometimes it's just not the right place or the right time for someone or something, so we decided to make a change."
Mesko may march to his own drummer, but he seems serious and committed and he brightened as he talked about one of the guys he knows on the club. A native of Romania, Mesko graduated from Twinsburg High School in Twinsburg, Ohio and was a big Ohio State fan when Mike Nugent was kicking for the Buckeyes. He attended a kicking camp at Kent State where Nugent was helping coach and got a few tips.
"I knew him in high school, so it's cool we have a history together and we've played against each other a few times (in the NFL)," Nugent said. "He's played more games in the playoffs than I have, which is two, and this is my ninth season. That's important to me. When he gets out on the field it shouldn't be new to him."
Mesko isn't all that impressed with his body of work in the playoffs, which includes nine inside-the-20s and just two touchbacks.
"Just because I'm relying on history, it doesn't mean it's going to perform for me. I have to earn it. We all have to earn it. I'm just excited to be a part of it," Mesko said. "I guess there's a little more sense of urgency, but my approach is the same. I have a routine I always stick to and why change the rules of your preparation when that's what you know and that's what makes you feel comfortable?"
Simmons admitted it's not the easiest of assignments. Going with a new punter so close to the playoffs gave Wednesday a training camp feel. It's a grind that never ends.
"You're always on a crash course. These guys know that when they're on the street, they know that going in," he said. "The kicker scores points. The last time I checked the guy who scores the most points wins, so probably having a new kicker would be the tougher of the two. But this affects the operation. Part of this guy's job description is he has to hold (on field goals and extra points). I felt comfortable with every guy we've had holding. Mike feels comfortable with that, too. The efficiency Clark (Harris) has plays into that. Clark (the long snapper) makes the job easy."
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