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New Tampa Bay Buccaneers punter Michael Koenen has hidden value

TAMPA

L ook at the football field as you would a game of chance. Where every yard gained in field position is like tilting the odds a little more in your favor.

So it makes sense that the farther an offense has to drive, the fewer points it tends to score. This was, in fact, a mathe­matical reality for the Buccaneers defense in 2010.

And it explains why Michael Koenen is a rich man today.

Of all the hundreds of free agents on the market last month, the Bucs targeted a punter and kickoff specialist to the tune of $19.5 million over six years. The deal makes Koenen one of the highest-paid punters in the NFL, and it makes the Bucs a better team in 2011.

"People say, 'He's just a pun­ter.' But that misses the point. He kicks the ball off, too, and he booms it. So we got two for one," said special teams coordinator Dwayne Stukes. "He's going to help our field position every game with touchbacks and punts inside the 10."

So what are we talking about here specifically?

Will Koenen make you leap out of your seat every Sunday? Will his name be chanted inside of Raymond James Stadium? Will he have you scrambling for the record books?

Um, not so much.

But will he have a noticeable impact by season's end?

Most definitely.

The Falcons were the No. 1 team in the NFL in defensive field position following kickoffs in 2010, and Koenen was a huge part of that. Falcons opponents began drives, on average, from the 22.2-yard line. Bucs opponents began, on average, from the 27.4.

If you figure a team has five kickoffs per game, that means the Falcons had a 25-yard advantage in field position every week compared to the Bucs.

And there's a chance that impact could grow in 2011.

Koenen was tied for third in the NFL in touchbacks with 23 last season; the Bucs finished last with one. And now the kickoff is being moved from the 30-yard line to the 35, which will increase the number of touchbacks around the league.

If Koenen had that extra 5 yards at his disposable last season, he would have put 83 percent of his kickoffs into the end zone.

This not only impacts starting field position and limits the possibility of returns for touchdowns, but it also saves wear and tear on kicking teams.

"There's not as much contact, not as many collisions," Stukes said. "Gives everyone a little more life."

The same is true in the punting game, where Koenen provides better hang time and forces more fair catches than you typically see in an NFL game.

He has never led the league in punting average or even net average, but that has not been the priority. Koenen has been one of the best in the fringe red zone — punts within 55 yards of an opponent's end zone — which means sacrificing distance by avoiding touchbacks.

Over the past three seasons, his ratio between touchbacks versus punts inside the 20 (12-72) is among the best in the league.

"My first couple of years, it was more of a grip-it-and-rip-it mentality, but you have so much more potency if you can put teams inside the 20," Koenen said. "My third or fourth year, it really clicked for me. They kind of drilled it into my head this idea of 40-40. Average 40 yards a punt and 40 yards net, too.

"Just limit or even take away the return possibilities."

Koenen and the Falcons took this attitude to new heights in 2008, when they set an NFL record by allowing 49 yards in punt returns for the entire season.

Yet Koenen averaged a relatively mediocre 40.7 yards per punt that season.

"As a punter, you're gauged on your yardage. When you look at my stats, you're not blown away because I don't average 48 yards a punt," Koenen, 29, said. "I had to learn to get over that. I had to get past the feeling that people are looking at you and thinking you're not a very good punter. When I got comfortable knowing that I'm still having an impact and that my identity is wrapped up in helping the team win, then it became easy."

His value in Atlanta became obvious when the team reserved its franchise tag for him in 2009, guaranteeing him one of the highest contracts for a punter in the league.

That was a different world for a kid who played in obscurity at Western Washington University and went undrafted despite leading the nation in punting average as a sophomore. Koenen made the Falcons in his first training camp in 2005 and was briefly the placekicker, too, in '06, before settling in as punter and kickoff specialist.

"I could have never imagined seven years ago that I would be where I'm at today," Koenen said. "But I wouldn't be surprised if this becomes a trend.

"Field position is so important, and I think punting has been overlooked as a weapon."

New Tampa Bay Buccaneers punter Michael Koenen has hidden value 08/07/11 [Last modified: Sunday, August 7, 2011 10:45pm]
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