Michael Koenen has only played two regular-season games with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but he's already gained an appreciation for the resiliency of his mostly very young teammates. That trait was certainly on display Sunday when the Buccaneers rallied from a 17-0 halftime deficit at Minnesota to win 24-20 on a last-minute touchdown.
"The atmosphere that we have is never-say-die," said Koenen. "You can't tell a young kid here that he's going to lose. He's going to keep fighting. It's a great setting for a football game. I'd like to see us come out a little faster, but it shows a lot of character that they keep fighting."
As the Buccaneers punter, holder and kickoff specialist, Koenen was on the field for 13 of the 143 offensive, defensive and special teams plays that made up Sunday's game, so he had a good view from the sideline for much of the team's stirring comeback. It was easy for him to appreciate Josh Freeman's imperturbable demeanor or Preston Parker's unexpected star turn or Mason Foster's handful of big plays on defense. The thing is, the plays he couldn't just watch – those that he himself had an important hand in – might have been just as critical to the Bucs' victory as anything Freeman, Parker or Foster did.
Simply put, with the margin of victory so slim and the Bucs' hopes so tenuous throughout the second half on Sunday, Koenen's right leg might very well have made the difference between winning and losing.
Consider the body of work the 29-year-old punter put together under the Mall of America Field roof on Sunday:
- On four punts, he compiled a gross average of 45.8 yards;
- Even better, his net average on those punts was 45.0 yards;
- Vikings punt returner Marcus Sherels had to call for two fair catches and only netted three yards on the two he did return;
- Two of Koenen's kickoffs were deep enough to produce touchbacks, and on one of those he had to duplicate his efforts from five yards farther back after someone on the coverage team was flagged for being offside;
- Two more of his kickoffs were returned, but one only reached the nine-yard line and the other the 10-yard line;
- His fifth kickoff was a rare successful onside kick.
There was not a single miscue among those nine plays, nor (unsurprisingly) on the four times he held for Connor Barth placekicks. On a day in which no one in the NFL returned a punt or a kickoff for a touchdown (after there were eight such scores in Week One), Koenen might have been the most valuable special teams player in the entire league.
His head coach, Raheem Morris, would likely be the first to stump for that candidacy.
"Koenen has been spectacular," said Morris, but he found plenty of other descriptive words as he started to tick off the ways his special teams star had affected Sunday's game. "To complete an onside kick, have four punts for a 45.8 average and a 45-point net…he's been just awesome. Two touchbacks, one [punt] inside the 20…he's been lights-out. We get a penalty on defense the first week and he kicks it through [from the 20] and gets a touchback. Yesterday we get a penalty, we left too early, and he just kicks it and gets another touchback. They brought one out yesterday from nine yards deep and we pinned him down inside their 12-yard line or whatever the case may be."
The two kickoffs that were returned were, in fact, the last two of the game and they helped the Bucs' defense keep the Vikings off the scoreboard during the most heated part of the comeback. After Arrelious Benn scored on a 25-yard catch with just under seven minutes left in the game, the Vikings' offense was able to get a first down and close to 20 yards on the ensuing drive, but they still had to punt from deep in their own territory. That allowed Tampa Bay to start its last drive at its own 39, rather than back by the end zone, and there were only 30 seconds left when they eventually capped off the 61-yard game-winning m arch. Had the Bucs started that drive at, say, their own 20, they might have run out of time, or ran into an offensive miscue among the extra plays that would've been necessary.
The Buccaneers signed Koenen in July as their most significant foray into unrestricted free agency, other than the equally important job of re-signing their own players. It didn't require too much tape study, as the Bucs had faced Koenen as an Atlanta Falcon twice a year since 2005 and had a strong impression of what he could do in the field-position game. While he was valuable enough as a punter, Koenen was doubly enticing because he annually ranked among the league's leaders in touchbacks as a kickoff specialist. With the kickoff line being moved up five yards to the 35, the Bucs saw a way to almost completely eliminate the opposing kickoff return game and at the same time save wear and tear on their best special teamers.
Koenen has not disappointed. He's kicked off seven times now, not including two onside attempts, and five of them have resulted in touchbacks, with the other two leading to opposing drive starts at the 10-yard line or worse. That's tied for the third-best touchback percentage in the NFL, behind Oakland and Denver where Sebastian Janikowski and Matt Prater, respectively, have produced 100% touchbacks. Opponents have had an average kickoff drive start of their own 17.0-yard line against the Bucs through two games, second-best in the NFL behind St. Louis' 16.3.
Meanwhile, Koenen is also second in the NFC and seventh in the NFL with his gross punting average of 49.3. His net average of 45.2 is third best in the entire league.
Last year, the Bucs produced only two touchbacks all season and ranked 30th in gross and 27th in net in the punting game. The turnaround has been instant and unmistakable.
"He's been lights-out," said Morris again. "He's changed field position, he's changed the game. That's a great job by our scouting department, going out there and getting him in free agency, and he's certainly been a difference maker in how we want to win games and how we want to change field position and get a little bit of momentum for us."
In a way, the Bucs helped themselves doubly by signing Koenen, as they took him away from a key division rival. Though a sample size of just two games is obviously not yet significant, it's still worth noting that without Koenen the Falcons currently rank 31st in gross punting average (36.8) and 30th in touchback percentage on kickoffs (20%). Atlanta has plenty of time to improve those numbers and may very well do so, but the Bucs can be secure in the knowledge that their kicking game will remain strong as the season progress.
Both teams will be looking for that all-important field-position edge this coming Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, as the 1-1 Bucs and 1-1 Falcons wage an early battle in the fight for NFC South supremacy. Koenen isn't spending much time looking back at his Falcon days, which included a lot of success for both him and the team, but he does know first-hand that an Atlanta-Tampa Bay matchup is usually very emotional. He's looking forward to helping rekindle the rivalry from the other side.
And the Buccaneers are merely happy he is on their side now.
"It's going to be exciting," said Koenen. "Hopefully we get a sell-out, get a lot of fans there. It's going to be electric, for sure."