In the incredibly entertaining Divisional Playoff Game between the New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers on Saturday, the lead changed hands four times in the last 4:02 of regulation. The 49ers ended up with the victory, 36-32, on a 14-yard touchdown catch by tight end Vernon Davis with a mere nine seconds to play.
Davis, Darren Sproles, Alex Smith and Jimmy Graham all made stunning plays in the last four minutes, any one of which could have been the decisive moment. And certainly, with 879 combined yards of offense and six turnovers in the game (five by New Orleans), one could conceivably call this a shootout or a game decided by the defense.
But in a game that comes down to the final nine seconds and makes its final turn on a touchdown catch just over the line, every yard is vitally important. And that's what made San Francisco punter Andy Lee such a critical, if hidden, part of the outcome.
Lee punted eight times, averaging 49.5 yards per boot with a brilliant net of 43.5. He placed half of his kicks inside the 20 and had two blasts of more than 60 yards. That effort played no small part in the fact that the Saints had an average drive start of their own 22-yard line while the 49ers' average start was their own 36 (that, of course, was impacted positively by all the turnovers). The Saints still amassed 472 total yards, but they consistently had to drive the length of the field to get in the end zone (their shortest TD drive was 66 yards) and in the end they just ran out of time.
It is on afternoons like these that the 49ers are surely thrilled that they have a Pro Bowl-caliber punter like Lee on their squad. San Francisco's special teams were undoubtedly a winning edge this season, and next weekend they will play the New York Giants for the right to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLVI.
It is also situations such as these that prompted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to target former Atlanta punter Michael Koenen in last summer's extremely abbreviated free agency period. In 2011, the Buccaneers continued with their plan to build a new team core primarily through the draft, but they did make a few forays into the veteran market, and the most significant one of those resulted in the addition of Koenen.
While the season that transpired in 2011 didn't follow the path the Bucs expected, the Koenen acquisition proved to be everything the team intended. Like Lee, Koenen provided a field-position edge almost every Sunday, something the Bucs had certainly been lacking in recent years. In fact, he might have had the most impactful season ever by a Tampa Bay punter, particularly when one factors in his outstanding work on kickoffs.
In July, when the Bucs announced their signing of Koenen, a seventh-year veteran who had only played for the Falcons to that point, General Manager Mark Dominik said it was a "big day for the organization," and a move that helped the team in many ways. He had taken over as G.M. early in 2009 and had since felt that his team had been on the wrong end of a factor he called hidden yardage. Koenen, he believed, could change that around in two ways.
And Dominik was right. Koenen gave the Buccaneers' one of the league's best field-position changers, in terms of both punts and kickoffs. Koenen's kicking exploits also put a serious dent in the franchise's record books.
Most importantly, Koenen put up a net punting average of 40.3, good for eighth in the NFL and by far the best mark in Buccaneer history. Net punting is the truest evaluation of how successful a punter (and his coverage team) are at flipping the field, as it takes into account not only how far the ball is kicked but also if it results in a touchback or not and if the opposing team eats back into that yardage with big returns. Koenen suffered just three touchbacks all season, in 67 attempts, which in itself is amazing. Paired with a 45.1-yard gross average, good hang time and strong downfield coverage, that led to good results almost every time he kicked away.
The previous record for net punting average for the Buccaneers was 37.8, by Tommy Barnhardt in 1996. In 2010, the Bucs had a net of 35.5 yards per punt. The difference may not seem enormous printed here, but over the course of the season, the consistency with which Koenen pushed opponents backward was critical, or would have been had the team been involved in more close affairs like Saturday's Niners-Saints game.
In addition, Koenen absolutely demolished the team record for touchbacks while kicking off, with 37, representing more than half of his kickoffs during the season. Only 12 of his 69 kickoffs even failed to reach the end zone. Obviously, this had something to do with the league moving the kickoff line from the 30 back up to the 35 (where it had been through 1994), but that is precisely why Dominik and company felt Koenen was such an important acquisition. Even Lee, who led the NFL in virtually every punting category and is a very deserving all-star, didn't handle kickoffs for the Niners in 2011. Koenen's kickoff work might have even played a part in the record-setting season turned in by Buccaneers placekicker Connor Barth.
Koenen didn't break the Buccaneers' single-season record for gross punting average – the number that simply tracks how far the ball is kicked before it stops or is caught by the opponent – but he came awfully close. His average of 45.1 yards per kick was second only to the mark of 45.6 put up by Josh Bidwell in 2005. Koenen's greatest achievement may have been his net average, which is as much a function of hang time as length, but it's not like he was settling for short pop-ups. His 65-yard blast against Chicago on October 23rd was the fifth-longest punt in team history, and he had at least one 50-yard punt in all but two of the Bucs' 16 games.
Again, the Buccaneers' 2011 season was unsatisfying on many levels, and it's admittedly hard to celebrate great seasons by your kickers when the losses are outnumbering the wins. It's important to note, though, that the Bucs signed Koenen to a six-year contract in July. Tampa Bay management definitely expects to field a more successful team in 2012, and if that's the case, Koenen's field-position edge will be even more important. Perhaps, if things go well enough, it will be as important as Lee's performance was for the 49ers on Divisional Playoff weekend.