Special teams production was an issue for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2016. Aside from Alex Erickson leading the AFC in kick return average during the course of the season, the unit as a whole looked both weak and inconsistent. The worst offender was kicker Mike Nugent, who was eventually cut after Week 14. But veteran punter, Kevin Huber, who averaged the lowest hang time among all NFL punters, was far from the Pro Bowler he was in 2014. Heading into the 2017 season, Huber feels there is plenty of reason for optimism when it comes to the Bengals’ special teams unit.
“All of the young guys are looking really good,” Huber said on Hobson's Choice Podcast. “Things are looking good right now, as far as special teams go. It’s a bright spot right now.”
Arguably one of the best, if not the best punter in Bengals history, 2016 was an unusually poor season for Huber. Luckily, he seems to understand what exactly went wrong and is already in the process of remedying the issues.
“I started off a little slow. I think I started out pressing too hard to make up for some bad hits I had early, and I think I got away from the punting I usually do,” Huber said. “I’ve gotten back to that this offseason. I feel like I’ve been hitting the ball pretty well. I’m pretty happy with where I’m at right now. I just have to carry that through the summer and come intro training camp strong.
As far as long-term goals, he’s shooting high.
“I’d love to get back to the Pro Bowl,” Huber says. “Everything I didn’t like about last season. I feel like I’m on the right path to get to where I was kicking a couple of years ago. I think I can get back there and make a couple of Pro Bowls before I’m done.”
Huber received his first and only Pro Bowl berth following a stellar 2014 season in which he averaged 42.1 net yards per punt, put 37 percent of his punts within the 20 yard mark, and only put up an eight percent touchback frequency. In 2016, his net average was down to 39.5, his percentage inside the 20 was down to 29.5, and his touchback percentage was up to 10.3. Then again, his supporting cast didn’t exactly make things easier.
“Definitely would have liked to have some better numbers last year,” Huber said. “I need to do a better job, myself. We had a lot of injuries last year, so it kind of screwed with our special teams core group, which kind of took the sink out of things. But, we have a lot of guys back, a lot of guys healthy now.”
Getting guys back healthy will certainly make a big difference. But, the massive influx of new players from the draft and free agency should go a long way toward improving the unit and allowing for consistent health on special teams.
The biggest problem with relying on so many new players is the lack of experience the new guys have with the Bengals’ system. That is exactly where having long-tenured veterans like Huber can come in handy, to provide the leadership and direction the unit needs. In fact, Huber has the most experience in Cincinnati of all Bengals players (nine years, all with the Bengals).
“A big thing I think I can do with the special teams guys coming in is getting them up to speed to Darrin’s style of coaching,” Huber said. “If you screw up, he’s going to let you know … Just take it and know that he’s noticing you … It’s going to be big for me to keep these guys from panicking.”
The Bengals are fortunate to have a dedicated, passionate player like Huber to show the new guys how things work in the NFL. Not only is he a Cincinnati native with a vested interest in the success of the team, but he is also arguably the most qualified and experienced member of the team to provide guidance to the young players.
“I’m the oldest Bengal, I’m not the oldest guy yet,” Huber explained, as though he’s been with the Bengals for more years than any other guy on the team, he’s not the oldest player on the roster. “My wife and I were taking a look at that that this offseason and all the guys we lost and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I might be the oldest guy.”
At 31-years-old, Huber is not the oldest player on the team, but he’s not far behind. Adam Jones (33, turns 34 on September 30, 2017) is the oldest and Eric Winston (33, turns 34 on November 17) is a close second. Clark Harris (32) and Wallace Gillberry (32) are also older than Huber. Harris, who has been Huber’s long snapper throughout his entire career (save for a few games), has been with the Bengals since October 2009. So while Huber has just a few months on Harris, no other member of the team has been with the Bengals that long without a break. Even Andre Smith, who was drafted by the Bengals in 2009, spent 2016 with the Minnesota Vikings and, therefore, has one less year of experience with the Bengals than Harris and Huber.
In 2017, it will be up to guys like Harris and Huber to make sure the special teams unit plays up to the standards it is capable of. Huber seems to believe it is a distinct possibility and is focused on realizing that vision.