When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers used free agency to land punter Michael Koenen with an attention-grabbing six-year deal in the summer of 2011, they were envisioning afternoons like the one Koenen had on Sunday at MetLife Stadium. It's difficult for a team to celebrate any individual performances after a painful loss, and that might be particularly true of the specialists. The "punter as game MVP" joke is about as old as the game of football and inevitable after a tough day for the offense.
But the Buccaneers had a chance to win Sunday's game against the New York Jets – and, in fact, appeared to be on the verge of doing so after Rian Lindell's 37-yard field goal with 34 seconds to play – in part because Koenen's performance was so impressive. On an afternoon in which both teams struggled to sustain drives, and no points were scored for the first 25 minutes of the second half, the field position battle was critical. And, amazingly, on a day that the opposing punter blasted the 13th-longest punt in NFL history (Robert Malone's 84-yarder in the third quarter), Koenen was the game's best field-position weapon.
The numbers are impressive on their own: seven punts for 326 yards, a gross average of 46.6 yards per and a net average of 45.3. Three of those seven kicks were downed inside the opponents' 20 (two inside the 10) and none went into the end zone for touchbacks. By contrast, despite that one amazing blast, Malone had a net average or 37.7 yards per punt.
No Buccaneer punter has ever had a combination of stats quite like that before. Koenen is the first player in team history to combine a gross of at least 45.0 and a net of at least 45.0 with three punts inside the 20 on at least five punts. If one drops the qualifications to at least four punts in a game, then there is one other such outing in franchise history…and it also belongs to Koenen. On October 16 of his first year with the Bucs, Koenen posted a 47.3-yard gross and a 49.8-yard net with three inside-the-20s against New Orleans.
"I don't know if I've seen a punting and kicking performance, in my 26 years [in coaching], like I saw yesterday from Mike Koenen," said Koenen's appreciative head coach, Greg Schiano, on Monday. "It was just tremendous. I thought our special teams played very, very well."
Indeed, as Schiano points out, Koenen's contributions didn't end at that punting line. The ninth-year veteran also handles kickoffs for the team, and he routinely blasted them out of the back of the far end zone. Of his five kickoffs, four went into (or beyond) the end zone and were not returned, producing touchbacks. He can't be blamed for the one that didn't – it was a free kick after a first-quarter safety, which he actually punted 67 yards from the Bucs' 20 to the Jets' 13, which is about as good of an outcome as his coaches could have hoped for.
Koenen had another contribution to the kicking efforts, too, one he performs every game but rarely draws attention for. That's a good thing. Koenen serves as the team's holder on placekicks, the middle man between long-snapper Andrew Economos and Lindell. On the Bucs' only field goal attempt of the day, Lindell's aforementioned 37-yarder under extreme pressure, Koenen snared a snap that was a little high and got it down perfectly for his kicking partner to knock it through.
Had the Buccaneers' held onto the lead Lindell's kick provided for 34 seconds, the individual performances such as Koenen's kicking or Vincent Jackson's 154 receiving yards or Mason Foster's two sacks would have been celebrated as the best parts of a successful outing. There was no celebrating at One Buccaneer Place on Monday, but it is nonetheless true that the Bucs' special teams had an encouraging first game, giving hope that the third phase of the game will be a winning edge for the club this year.
New return man Eric Page remained decisive in his returns and got 35 yards on two punts. The Bucs' cover team hustled downfield for those inside-the-20 kicks by Koenen and allowed just nine yards of punt returns and 19 yards on the lone kickoff runback. Lindell made his first kick as a Buccaneer, in a pressure-cooker, and an end-of-game desperation kickoff-return gambit on the game's final play came somewhat close to actually working.
No one on that crew had a better day than Michael Koenen, however. In fact, few Buccaneer punters have ever enjoyed as strong of an outing as Koenen did against the Jets on Sunday.