The first number of any kind generated for the stat sheet in the first game played by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2011 was -5.
That was a good number for the Buccaneers.
Tampa Bay began its 2011 preseason last Friday in Kansas City and, after losing the coin toss, lined up for the opening kickoff. Michael Koenen proceeded to bang that kickoff five yards into the Chiefs' end zone – what is notated as the KC -5 in the play-by-play – where it was fielded by Quintin Lawrence. Lawrence took a step forward, hesitated for a split-second, then rushed out of the end zone, hoping to make a play. Instead, Koenen's 10 cover men swarmed over the Kansas City return man at the eight…the second number of any kind generated for the stat sheet this season.
That was the Bucs' shortest kickoff of the game (or tied for it, at least) and the only one that the Chiefs bothered to take out. With the help of rookie Jacob Rogers, who handled the last three kickoffs, here's where Tampa Bay's six kicks came down in Kansas City and where the Chiefs subsequently started their next drive. The negative number indicates how deep into the end zone the ball went.
* The -13 designation is an approximation. Rogers' kickoff landed behind the Chiefs' end zone and the official stat sheet therefore does not list a particular yard line.
That is the numerical representation of a plan coming together. The Buccaneers signed Koenen to a lucrative six-year contract as an unrestricted free agent in July, luring him away from the Atlanta Falcons. They appreciated Koenen's skills as a punter, particularly when it came to pinning the opposition deep in their own territory, but they also knew he would be a major asset as a kickoff specialist. Rogers, an undrafted rookie placekicker out of the University of Cincinnati, wasn't specifically part of that plan, but at the very least he demonstrated a potentially NFL-ready leg with his work against the Chiefs.
The Bucs' goal in the kicking game for 2011 was to generate more touchbacks. That would not only result in a more favorable average drive start for their opponents but also save wear and tear on their special teams cover men. Koenen wasted no time showing what a difference-maker he could be.
"Koenen and field position…we talked about it, and he certainly changed it for us tonight with his kickoffs," said Head Coach Raheem Morris after the Kansas City game. "He started to change it with his punts. Even those guys that come in…his backups came in and did a pretty good job."
Each of Koenen's and Rogers' kickoffs came from the Tampa Bay 35-yard line, a new spot in 2011 after 17 NFL seasons of kicking off from the 30. The Bucs would have been seeking a way to produce more touchbacks in 2011 anyway after ranking last in the NFL with just one in 2011. After the rule change, however, it became more of a priority, as Buccaneers brass saw a way to turn a liability into a major strength.
The implications of kicking the ball deep into the end zone are potentially enormous. Last year, with Koenen kicking off, the Falcons ranked first in the NFL in average opponent kickoff drive start. After 88 kickoffs, their foes started at an average of their own 22.2-yard line, thanks in large part to Koenen's 48 kicks into the end zone, 23 of which turned into touchbacks. In contrast, the Buccaneers had the eighth-best kickoff coverage crew and yet still finished 18th in opponent average kickoff drive start, with a mark of the 27.4-yard line.
Pushing back an opponent's drive start is very important. Last year, Tampa Bay opponents started 58 drives at their own 20-yard line or worse. Only 10 of those resulted in scores (17.2%), and only three of them resulted in touchdowns (5.2%).
If the Bucs' opponent started anywhere between their own 21 and their own 40, however, the scoring percentage goes up significantly. There were 78 such possessions against the Bucs' defense last year, and 22 resulted in scores (28.2%), 14 of which were touchdowns (17.9%).
The Bucs' kickoff coverage team will still try to pin its opponents even closer to the goal line when it gets the opportunity, but a simple Koenen touchback will ensure that the ball is placed no further than the 20. And it's easy to see why the Bucs believe Koenen will be a touchback machine.
Again, 48 of Koenen's 88 kickoffs last year reached the end zone, with 23 deep and high enough to convince the return man to stay put. While Lawrence may have made a poor decision on the opening kickoff on Friday night, NFL return men often base their decision in the end zone on one simple rule: If you're backing up when you catch it, stay. If you're moving forward, go.
Of Koenen's 48 shots into the end zone last year, 25 were brought back, presumably because they were not too far past the stripe. Add five yards to each of those kicks, and it's likely that most of those, too, will be deep enough to dissuade the return man from giving it a try. Add five yards to the 40 kickoffs that Koenen didn't hit into the end zone last year, and you probably have another handful that are going to cause the opposition serious pause.
Furthermore, Koenen's performance on Friday night was no fluke, nor were his good numbers on kickoffs last year. Since he came into the league in 2005, Koenen has been one of the most consistent deep kickers in the entire NFL. In fact, only Olindo Mare and Sebastian Janikowski have produced more touchbacks over that span than Koenen. And while some kickers in that span may have had fewer kickoff opportunities, Koenen also ranks just behind Mare and Sebastian in touchback percentage in that time period. The top five are the same on both lists, actually, with Josh Scobee and Neil Rackers switching spots from the first category to the second.
Understandably, the new kickoff line has drawn a lot of attention among the small amount of rule changes and points of emphasis introduced by the NFL in 2011. Early in the first quarter of Friday's game in Kansas City, Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman ran the ball into the end zone for a touchdown, and few noticed when the action was paused briefly for the play to be reviewed upstairs in the booth. That's a new rule in 2011 – every scoring play is reviewed upstairs.
The kickoff rule is obviously producing more visible results. However, it's not necessarily turning every team into a touchback machine. It's worth noting that the Buccaneers were way ahead of most of the league in that department in Week One of the preseason.
Tampa Bay produced five touchbacks in six kickoffs, or 83.3% of the time. The overall league average in Week One was 31.9%. Three teams topped the Bucs with a 100% touchback rate last week, but one of those teams (San Francisco) only kicked off once and one (Baltimore) only kicked off three times. The only team to really outdo the Bucs in that department in Week One, and barely, was Washington, which produced touchbacks on all five of its kickoffs.
Without Koenen, Atlanta produced zero touchbacks and just two kickoffs into the end zone on six tries. Miami, Jacksonville and the New York Jets were all 0-5, though it must be noted that the Jets actually led the NFL in average opponent kickoff drive start because they trapped the opposing return man inside the 20 on four of those five kicks.
It's just one game, but the Buccaneers' opponent average drive start in Kansas City was the 18.0-yard line, tied for fifth best in the league. That is an enormous improvement over last year's figure, and a good sign that opposing offenses are going to have farther to travel against the Buccaneers in 2011.
It's also a good sign that Tampa Bay's plan for the kicking game is coming together nicely.