The 2012 season was rewarding for New Orleans Saints punter Thomas Morstead — at least personally.
In late July, the four-year veteran received a six-year, $21.9 million contract extension from the Saints, and 31/2 months later, he became engaged to longtime girlfriend Lauren Moore.
Then Morstead capped a solid season by becoming one of only seven punters in NFL history to average 50 yards per kick. He finished with a 50.1-yard gross average and also threatened the league’s single-season record for net average before coming up short.
That helped him earn his first trip to the Pro Bowl, where he’ll be joined by three teammates — quarterback Drew Brees, guard Jahri Evans and tackle Jermon Bushrod — on the NFC all-star squad that will go against the AFC on Sunday in Honolulu. Of course, Brees, Evans and Bushrod have been to the Pro Bowl before.
Morstead’s selection to the Pro Bowl last month was soon followed by news that he was voted an All-Pro second-team pick behind the San Francisco 49ers’ Andy Lee, the man Morstead beat out for the Pro Bowl spot.
“It definitely feels good to make the Pro Bowl because it’s a combination of fans, coaches and players,” said Morstead. “It’s an honor to be voted in by those guys, so it’s a cool thing.
“The All-Pro team was another huge honor. They only pick two (punters), so that’s something special. It’s just been a great year for me.”
Morstead said it almost didn’t start that way.
After the Saints approached him about adding six more years onto his rookie contract that was scheduled to expire after the 2012 season, which could have made him an unrestricted free agent, he felt the added pressure.
He admitted he struggled in the first four exhibition games. Then he had a little talk with General Manager Mickey Loomis before the preseason finale against the Tennessee Titans.
“Nobody really paid attention to it, but I kind of struggled in the preseason,” Morstead said last week before departing for Hawaii. “I kind of felt the added pressure to perform up to the contract I had signed.”
That’s when Loomis helped Morstead, who was averaging 42.7 yards a kick to that point in the preseason, relax by telling him they weren’t paying him to be any different than he was in his first three seasons.
After all, he averaged 45.9 and 48.3 yards, respectively, in 2010 and ’11 and became a valuable weapon on kickoffs with his strong right leg — leading the league in touchbacks in 2011.
“He said, ‘Just be you … don’t do anything more,’ ” Morstead said of his chat with Loomis. “It kind of lifted the pressure from me. I just had to be me and work hard to try and improve every day.
“Once I was told that, it kind of helped me to relax a little. I had an unhealthy perspective on it with the way I was thinking about it. I really appreciated Mickey doing that.”
Morstead responded with a consistent season in which he averaged 50.0 yards per punt in 10 of 16 games. He also averaged 49.0 yards in two others.
As a result, he earned the trip to the Pro Bowl that many thought he deserved in 2011 before Lee was chosen.
“Andy’s an exceptional punter, too, and he had been to the Pro Bowl before,” Morstead said of missing out last year. “It was an honor just to be mentioned with some of those top names.”
“He’s a guy that made an impression since he’s been here,” Saints special teams coordinator Greg McMahon said. “Because of his work ethic and kind of guy he is, you always pull for players like that. To be voted by your peers, coaches around the league and fans is good for our team and good for him.”
To help celebrate his first Pro Bowl honor, Morstead brought his fiancée, their parents and Saints long snapper Justin Drescher along, as well as the special teams equipment manager, to Hawaii as his guests.
Naturally, they hope it becomes an annual get-together.
“I’ll just try to continue to get better every year, and hopefully, I’ll be one of those names that will be mentioned all the time,” Morstead said.