On Friday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers announced the signing of former Atlanta punter and kickoff specialist Michael Koenen to a six-year contract.
That Koenen is the Buccaneers' first strike in unrestricted free agency is testament to this fact: Every yard counts in the insanely competitive NFC South, where three teams finished with 10 or more victories last year and it seems like a new champion is crowned every season.
Last year, for instance, the 10-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost a 27-21 decision in Atlanta to the 13-3 Falcons when a final 89-yard drive faltered at the Atlanta two-yard line. The pivotal moment of the drive is remembered by most as LeGarrette Blount's unsuccessful fourth-and-one run at the two. But would that last attempt by Blount have even been necessary if the drive had started at the Buccaneers' 20 instead of their own nine?
It was Koenen who pinned the Buccaneers at their nine to set up that final march, coming through once again in one of the many ways he has helped win the field position battle since he entered the league in 2005. During the last six seasons, Koenen has placed a whopping 150 punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line, tied for the eighth-most in the NFL over that span.
"He certainly changes field position," said Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris. "He certainly killed us; now he's with the good guys. I called and told him that. He brings a specialty in kickoffs. He brings a dynamic on field position. We talk about winning that battle, getting the ball back to the quarterback, changing field position. I've been a victim of that enough. We were fortunate to go get him and I feel great about it."
All three of Koenen's punts in the aforementioned game were of the short-field variety, but he also handled the kickoffs for the Falcons, blasting four of his six kicks into the end zone, one for a touchback. That's another area in which Koenen has excelled during his NFL career. From 2005-10, Koenen produced 106 touchbacks, getting that much-desired result on 23.6% of his attempts. Both of those figures rank third in the NFL over that span behind, in both cases, Olindo Mare and Sebastian Janikowski.
That's an area in which the Buccaneers clearly needed help, and they could hardly have done a better job of finding it. Last year, Koenen tied for third in the NFL with 23 touchbacks while the Buccaneers' kickoff man, Connor Barth, tied for 36th with just one. Tampa Bay's coaching staff has been thrilled with Barth's work on field goals and the team prepared for his restricted free agency by offering him a high-level tender offer that requires another team to return a second-round pick if they sign him away. The Bucs could not pass up the opportunity to shore up the kickoff phase of their special teams, however.
During the 2011 offseason, the NFL modified its kickoff rule, moving the point of the kick back to the 35-yard line, where it had been before it was moved back to the 30 in 1994. While some other changes were also made that will help the return team – such as allowing kickoff coverage men to only get five-yard running starts – it's clear that the touchback will be a greater weapon in 2011. That's particularly true for teams with strong-legged kickoff men; credit Buccaneers General Manager Mark Dominik for recognizing that opportunity and putting his team on the right side of the equation.
Koenen first joined the Falcons as an undrafted free agent out of Western Washington University in 2005, and he has filled a variety of roles in Atlanta since. He won the team's punting job immediately as a rookie and also took over the kickoff duties. Atlanta led the NFL in his first season in average opponent kickoff drive start, with their foes starting drives at an average spot of the 24.1-yard line.
That has become a career trend for Koenen, as evidenced by his numbers last year. In 2010, Koenen led the NFL by allowing an average drive start of the 22.2-yard line, and also produced a league-leading 23 kickoffs in which the opponent was stopped inside its own 20. The Buccaneers ranked 18th in this category, with an average opponent drive start of the 27.4-yard line.
Koenen's strong and accurate leg prompted the Falcons to use him in yet another role during his first three years in the league: long-distance field goal specialist. He was brought on in place of first Todd Peterson (2005) and then Morten Andersen (2006-07) to try a handful of very long attempts, making four of 13 attempts in that span. In 2006, he actually began the season in a rare dual role, handling both punts and kickoffs, before the Falcons switched course and brought in the veteran Andersen.
The Buccaneers won't need Koenen to handle field goal; they've got Barth for that, and Barth has even showed a knack for the long-distance shot. However, Koenen will surely help the Buccaneers in every other phase of special teams, a portion of the game that Tampa Bay brass has always treated as very significant. That much was clear when the Bucs dipped into free agency on Friday.