TAMPA — Michael Koenen heard boos after each of his three punts Sunday, which traveled 37, 23 and 31 yards.
He may rank last in the NFL among punters, but his job was to prevent the Falcons' otherworldly return man Devin Hester from taking it to the house. In the teams' Sept. 18 meeting, Hester got loose for a 62-yard return for a touchdown.
For the men who put the foot into football, theirs is a somewhat thankless job that can change the outcome of games. Fans generally are not happy to see them because it means a drive has stalled. Then there are those who get their kicks hurling insults after every wayward boot.
"I don't get frustrated," Koenen said. "People don't know the ins and outs of what we're trying to do. I was actually laughing because one of the fans yelled at me, 'Now that's how you punt!' after the one (Falcons punter) Matt Bosher hit and then we returned it 53 yards on them and I was sitting there smiling, thinking, 'That's why we didn't hit one like that.' "
Koenen, who makes $3.25 million per year, has tried to adapt to the Bucs' requests to provide more hang time, or to mix up the trajectory of punts from spiral to knuckleball and help the team's kick coverage.
It hasn't helped Koenen's net average, a career-worst 35.2 yards. He's the first to admit he can hit the ball better. But the plan Sunday was to punch it with the top of his foot so it would spin end-over-end and look more like a kickoff than a punt.
"There's certain things you do as a punter, whether it's knuckleball or inside the 20 or we're trying to punt so they get no return or straight fair catches," he said. "I've never been an average guy because I've never been asked to just punt it down the middle for distance. But I feel like I can do better with what I'm being asked to do at the same time."
Coach Lovie Smith's plan to limit Hester's touches was understandable. As Bears coach, he was on the sideline for all of Hester's NFL-record 20 returns for touchdowns.
"I think for a guy like Hester, he can be so dangerous, he doesn't need much of anything," Koenen said. "In Atlanta we had a 5.2, 56-yard punt right on the sideline and he finds a seam and he's gone because he's so fast. So the more you can get him to wave his hand in the air (for a fair catch), the better."
Smith also knows his kick coverage team is not exceptional. "They go hand-in-hand," he said.
The one time Hester hurt the Bucs was on a 48-yard kickoff return just before halftime, setting up a Falcons field goal and a 13-10 lead. Koenen, who also kicks off for the Bucs, had hoped to punch it through the end zone.
Smith says handling the Bucs' directives should be no problem for Koenen.
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"I don't look at it as a sacrifice," Smith said. "That's the job. …
"Yeah, we didn't hit the ball as well as we needed to the other day. But we did have a plan for a player like Hester: fair catch it or kick off out of bounds."
And Koenen's job is to execute the plan.