Midway through the fourth quarter of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 36-17 win at Minnesota on Thursday night, Michael Koenen kicked off for the eighth and final time of that night, following a Doug Martin touchdown run. Koenen's blast rocketed high and deep towards the back of the Vikings' end zone, as had all his others, practically guaranteeing a touchback.
Percy Harvin, the Vikings' red-hot return man, wasn't ready to concede that outcome, however. Harvin edged right up against the back line of the end zone, waited until the last minute and leaped, trying to pull the football down like a basketball player grabbing a one-handed rebound.
Harvin couldn't quite haul it in, but the effort was a sure sign of the frustration that Koenen's carbon-copy kickoffs were causing the Vikings, as they had the Buccaneers' last three opponents as well. Harvin is one of the NFL's most dangerous weapons – he already has one kickoff return touchdown this year and two others erased by penalties – and Koenen was rendering him useless, at least in the return game.
"I was just trying to swing hard and get that ball out of the back of the end zone," said Koenen on Friday. "I guess I've had to step up the last few weeks with Percy back there and, before that, [New Orleans' Darren] Sproles back there. I had to get it out of the end zone, so I was just trying to swing hard, stay smooth and try to get it out of there, and it worked out."
Earlier in the game, Harvin had managed to return one of Koenen's kickoffs, but he had to run it out from seven yards deep to do so. That particular boot had been as deep as the others, but it came in on a faster, lower trajectory, and that gave Harvin a window of opportunity, though most return men still would have elected to kneel in that situation. Harvin got it out to the 36, giving the Vikings their best drive-starting position of the entire evening.
Beyond that field position edge, the significance of Harvin's return was that it broke Koenen's remarkable string of consecutive touchbacks. Dating back to the Buccaneers' Week Four game against the Washington Redskins, Koenen had powered 21 straight kickoffs deep enough to produce touchbacks. That is the longest such streak in a single season in the NFL since the AFL-NFL merger.
It's been 42 years since that merger.
"When they told me that I said, 'What merger?'" joked Head Coach Greg Schiano. "It was a long time ago, right? That's a record that will probably last for a while."
Perhaps, although Koenen has to be considered a threat to his own record. He leads the NFL with a touchback rate of 77.5%, having produced that result on 31 of his 40 kickoffs so far. That particular skill is a big part of the reason the Buccaneers lured the former Falcon punter away from Atlanta in free agency two years ago, believing he could be a field-position weapon in several ways. He was good in that regard in his first season with the Bucs, getting touchbacks on 58.7% of his tries, but he's significantly better this year.
"You just try to get through the ball and swing hard," said Koenen. "I guess you've got to credit our strength staff, they're doing a really good job. I've been doing a few different things this year, trying to get stronger and trying to recover well from each game and maintain. That's something I've been able to do, but I guess right now it's just a groove, finding that sweet spot every time."
Koenen also put up excellent punting averages of 46.8 gross and 41.7 net against the Vikings, often angling his punts just right to maximize distance while cutting down on the possibility of a return. Between his kickoffs and his punting, Koenen forced the Vikings to start their 14 drives at an average spot of their own 24-yard line (no turnovers by the offense also helped in that regard). Koenen also served as the trusted holder on Connor Barth's three field goal attempts, all successful.
"In the punting game too, when we pinned them right to the sideline or when the ball went out of bounds, I thought it was an excellent job," said Schiano. "Koenen did an excellent job in both phases. To get Connor back on the three field goals…our specialists did a great job."
As he fielded questions in the Bucs' locker room on Friday afternoon, Koenen wore a black t-shirt with the words, "Punters Are People Too" emblazoned in white letters. The slogan obviously referenced the old joke that kicking specialists are not "real" football players but out-of-place specialists looked down upon by their teammates. In reality, Koenen knows he is much appreciated by his teammates and the Bucs' front office.
"I've always thought – and I'm not the only one with this viewpoint – that the punter is the defense's best friend," he said. "If we can pin guys back at the 10-yard line, that's awesome. If we can keep them from getting the equivalent of free first downs on the returns, that's a good thing. It's definitely hidden in the game a little bit, being special teams, and that's fine, but it is important."