Thursday, December 17, 2015
Sam Koch is Changing the World of Punting
Sam Koch has changed the punting game -- and almost no one noticed
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- We need something extra. The thought reverberated for Sam Koch. In four days, the Baltimore Ravens would face one of the NFL's most explosive punt returners. Koch, a veteran punter in his ninth season, wanted to have a little something extra for him.
So as the Ravens gathered for their Wednesday practice, special-teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg suggested a twist. Let's see if we can fool him. Koch began experimenting. He angled his body toward the right sideline, a pre-snap position that usually indicates the kick's direction, and torqued his hips and right leg toward the left sideline without changing his horizon -- ultimately sending the ball some 40 yards toward the opposite sideline a returner would expect.
"After a few minutes," Rosburg said, "we knew we had something."
The effect was immediate and, without exaggeration, has turned punting strategy in the NFL upside down. Yet almost no one has noticed.
Koch punted six times in that initial game, a Week 9 matchup in 2014 with Pittsburgh Steelers returner Antonio Brown on the field. Brown made four fair catches, and the other two punts rolled out of bounds.
That success sparked further attempts to devise unpredictable punts. One year later, Koch has roughly 10 distinctly different kicks in what the Ravens refer to as his "golf bag."
Some are designed to hook toward the sideline with maximum hang time. Others use an intentionally low trajectory to aid coverage teams. He has a knuckler and one kick that drops, from the returner's perspective, roughly in the shape of the letter "S." Two weeks ago, he debuted a "boomerang" punt that does just what you would imagine it might. Most, but not all, of these punts are intended to discourage a clean catch and minimize the return.
It's not unusual for NFL punters to develop a "changeup" of sorts, but no one has ever had multiple options at the ready. The innovation has vaulted Koch to the top of the NFL's most credible punting statistics, including net yardage (44.41 this season) and Expected Points Added (0.42 per punt), but in a reflection of how few people understand punting, he has trailed in Pro Bowl fan balloting all season.
The NFL changes every day, but there are only a few moments in each generation when it transforms. This is one of them. In plain sight, Sam Koch and the Ravens have introduced a new way to punt. As contemporaries begin catching up, Koch provided ESPN.com with an inside look at how he thinks and in some cases executes his creations.
"Ray Lewis, when he was here, would always tell us to create a legacy," Koch said, sitting in a quiet meeting room recently at the Ravens' practice facility. "What we're trying to do, our group here, is find a way to change the game."
There has been one relative constant as football schemes have otherwise evolved. Special teams have remained comfortably familiar, especially to the amateur eye.
You could count the visible modernizations on one hand. Coaches have pushed many punters to kick directionally, rather than simply booming it high and far. Rugby-style backward rotation has proliferated, and a few punters have experimented with kicks that knuckle. Former Cleveland Browns punter Chris Gardocki sometimes kicked toward the left sideline with his left foot, leading to strategically unpredictable results, when Rosburg was an assistant there in the early 2000s.
Koch, a sixth-round draft pick in 2006, spent the first 8 1/2 years of his career as a right directional punter. On most kicks, he stood offset to the right and attempted to pin the returner on that sideline.
Rosburg suggested adding a left directional punt when he joined the Ravens' staff in 2008. Again, for those kicks, there was no real deception involved beyond an offset stance.
It wasn't until Nov. 2, 2014, when the world started changing. Because of practice restrictions and leg maintenance, Koch had perhaps 30 attempts to perfect the new technique before the Steelers game. It was enough to become comfortable with the unnatural torque required to pull his right leg that far, and it shocked the small community of football people who understood what was happening.
In real time, from the typical broadcasting vantage point of the sideline, the punt appeared no different than any other. On coaches' film from the end zone, however, the difference is clear. As the screen shot reveals, the ball skies toward the opposite sideline that Koch's body positioning would suggest.
In the punt below, Brown sprinted about 50 yards from one sideline to the other and never did get his hands on the ball before it rolled out of bounds at the 3-yard line.
"You try to get a read off where the punter's head is facing," Brown said. "However, when you have a guy who can point his head one way, and punt it the other way, that's a great skill."
Encouraged by the results, Koch, Rosburg and Ravens kicking consultant Randy Brown continued experimenting. While not revealing every detail, nor confirming every type of punt, Koch took ESPN.com through an example for most of his kicks on video stored on his iPad.
"One kind of led to another," Koch said. "Practice has become kind of like a science experiment on the numerous ways we can kick a ball. Me personally, I get kind of bored pretty fast, so I wanted to kind of try to find new ways to kick the ball.
"My first eight years in the league were all just trying to get the ball as high as you can, as far as you can, get it to be as pretty as you can, and get it over to the sidelines. When you think about what we've done, you wonder, 'Why didn't anyone try this earlier? Why would you want to punt it to the returner if you didn't have to?'"
Let's dive into Koch's golf bag. After all, his opponents now must do it weekly. These punts are in addition to the more standard "turnover" kicks, which spiral in the air, and rugby-style punts with backward spin.
One of two styles that Koch kicks with the "torque" technique. It can go toward the right or left sideline, is designed to go 43-47 gross yards and post a hang time between 4.5-4.7 seconds. If a returner does catch up to it, the torque and force of the kick makes it difficult to catch. It will fade back into the field and ultimately drop in the shape of an S. "It's weird," Koch said, "but it will kind of run away from the returner. Guys have difficulty catching them." If you were watching St. Louis Rams returner Tavon Austin in Week 11, you noticed him misalign himself under a Koch punt and muff it. It was a hook.
These also use the "torque" technique and can go right or left, but they are designed to go longer with a lower trajectory. They average between 47-50 gross yards with a hang time between 3.6-3.7 seconds. They are so low that often, when watching them from a wide view, the ball doesn't leave the screen. "The objective," Koch said, "is to keep it low, get it on the ground and get the coverage there before the returners can catch up." Koch achieves the difference by leaning the ball forward in his hands relative to the way he holds it for hooks. A recent liner came in Week 13, a punt that traveled 67 yards and landed at the Miami Dolphins' 1-yard line, in between the numbers and the sideline.
While many punters have a knuckler, Koch brings a more severe effect to his in context with the rest of his array. Rather than point toward the sideline, Koch has a "middle knuckler" punt that invites a returner to field it. "The objective here," Koch said, "is to try to get a turnover by trying to get him to catch the ball. It doesn't have to be far. As it comes down, it moves. You'll see some guys try to catch it, and some guys run away from it." Typically, the spin is achieved by holding the ball at the 2 o'clock position to strike the "meat" of the ball. Koch used one earlier this season against the Arizona Cardinals' Patrick Peterson, who at first settled at the 10-yard line for a fair catch before abruptly running away from it to avoid a turnover. The Ravens downed the ball at the 1-yard line. "He was laughing when I asked him about it after the game," Koch said. "He said, 'I didn't want that to ruin my stats.'"
This punt was under development during our early December visit to the Ravens' facility, but Koch broke it out during the Week 13 game against the Dolphins. "Depending on the wind," Koch said, "it will look like it's going straight at the returner, but then it'll boomerang and slowly start running away from him." In this case, Koch targeted Dolphins returner Jarvis Landry, who initially settled at his 36-yard line but then abruptly moved seven yards back and about five yards to his left to prevent the ball from going over his head. He was tackled at the 42-yard line for a net of 43 yards. (After a penalty, the net increased to 55 yards.)
Troubleshooting and strategy
As they continued rolling out new kicks, Koch and Rosburg wondered: Could smart returners derive any "hints" from Koch's pre-kick positioning? Might they see the late torque and learn to get a jump on the kick's direction?
So during the special-teams portion of a 2014 practice, they sent place kicker Justin Tucker 50 yards downfield and used team staffers to form representative offensive and defensive lines. Tucker watched Koch punt and couldn't see anything other than his head.
"You can see it from the stands," Rosburg said, "but you can't see it from the field."
Each week, the Ravens' punt team meets for a game-planning session and creates a "play sheet" to identify the menu for the next game. Weather, game situation and hashmark positioning all play a role, as does Koch's analysis of his pregame warmup. Yes, the Ravens calls plays for their punter.
"We decide the type of ball we're going to use in each situation," Koch said. "It'll depend on hashes, which way the wind is blowing, who is back there, how many returners are they going to put back there. We'll get two or three different kinds that are potential candidates, then once it's third or fourth down, we make a decision."
Returners might not be able to predict his punts, but after a calendar year of this experiment, opponents are beginning to counter. The Rams, for example, used Austin and Wes Welker as dual returners in Week 11, taking the rare step of removing a blocker to ensure that someone could (attempt to) catch Koch's punts regardless of direction.
Rosburg has also noticed fans at MT&T Bank Stadium no longer gasp when Koch hits a liner. "They realize I think that it was actually on purpose," he said.
And there have been the beginnings of copycat simulations. Rams punter Johnny Hekker has attempted a few, as has the Denver Broncos' Britton Colquitt. According to the Steelers' Brown, however, no one has pulled off a deception the way Koch originally did last season.
"Usually they show their hand at it," Brown said. "Right before they get the snap, they usually turn their heads back. That's the key [for imitators]."
Said Rosburg: "If they could do it the same way, they would be doing it now. It's not easy. As you get down the road, there will be more experimentation and you'll see more of it. But he's blazing a trail here. What he is doing, nobody else is doing it. They would if they could. They'll catch up eventually, but I don't think most players or coaches are real excited to put something out that hasn't been tested. They want to know before they use it, which I totally understand."
Hekker and Colquitt, of course, are two of the NFL's most established punters. Minnesota Vikings punter Jeff Locke, in his third season, said, "Most of us are just trying to get the ball downfield 40 yards with a decent hang time, so what he's doing is incredible."
Locke said he couldn't imagine adding a technique during the season but expects this offseason to be busy for NFL punters. Look at Koch's numbers before and after the first hook punt was introduced.
From his rookie season in 2006 to Week 8 of 2014, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, Koch averaged 39.03 net yards per punt (No. 28 among qualified punters over that period) and had an EPA of 0.03 per punt (No. 33). Since then? Koch has the NFL's top net average (44.39) and EPA (0.37).
"He is really going to have an influence as you see other guys try his stuff," Locke said. "To be honest, most guys wouldn't even have thought about doing the stuff he's done already. You've seen a little bit here or there. But this has really all come from Sam and it's come fast.
"I think we'll look back at this and say, 'Sam Koch changed the punting game.' I really do. That's how incredible this has been in our world."
The possibility has existed, and been anticipated by many, since the NFL outfitted its officials with wireless communication last year. In a world where conspiracy theories erupt by the minute, it was easy to wonder: Who is talking to the referees? What are they saying? And why?
This week the NFL codified a limited expansion of communication for the postseason between referees and members of the league's officiating command center in New York. In a press release, the league said vice president of officiating Dean Blandino, or his designee, will consult not only on replay reviews but also on "administrative" issues "regarding the correct application of playing rules" such as penalty yardage and clock operation.
It insisted that Blandino "will not call or change a foul or become involved in on-field judgment calls beyond what is already part of the replay review process," but here's a dirty little secret: Many people in the officiating community aren't buying it and remain highly suspicious of the true purpose and use of the wireless communication system.
The theory has been advanced by none other than Mike Pereira, one of Blandino's predecessors who now works as an analyst for Fox Sports. In an interview this week, Pereira reiterated his belief -- which he first voiced in September -- that Blandino or a member of his staff has been whispering in the ears of referees for some time.
The league has denied it, but Pereira -- still highly respected in the football community -- said: "Of course they're going to say that publicly because it was against the rules."
Pereira added: "There's really no context in the rule book [before this week's expansion] for allowing the replay official or New York to give any input [beyond replay], so it's not something they would acknowledge. But really, to think that it wasn't happening is probably being very, very, very naive."
The upside of this week's announcement is that it will minimize the possibility of an embarrassing mistake in a playoff game. If a referee loses track of downs, as Pete Morelli's crew appeared to in a Week 12 game between the Cardinals and 49ers, Blandino could catch and correct it. If a clock operator allows time to run off in error, Blandino could restore it. From my perspective, as discussed in September, this expansion provides a painless safety net for the most correctable errors.
The bigger question: where could this modification lead? Questions of consistency, accountability, motive and transparency grow more complicated upon the introduction of a new dynamic.
"I would hope they'll limit this to correcting only the most egregious of errors," said retired NFL referee Gerald Austin, now an ESPN analyst. "I don't want to sound critical, but there have been some inconsistencies in the decisions that New York has made on replays this year. So what would you be doing? Would you just be shifting the inconsistency you may perceive on the field for the inconsistency from New York?"
On a philosophical level, Pereira said, the questions grow more basic. Officials are in place to be the objective, uninfluenced third-party administrators of games. What would it mean to introduce the possibility of, in essence, a wizard pulling levers behind the curtain?
"Everything up to the point of putting the ear piece into the referee's ear," Pereira said, "has been accountable. It was what you saw on the field. A conversation with someone in New York, that's the unknown. I would understand a coach being concerned about that. How do you know what's being said? How do you know they're only covering the plays that are reviewable? And what are you left to think if they have that in place and still miss something?"
Said former NFL official and supervisor Jim Daopoulos: "If they're going to be in the ears of the officials, how do you determine who is accountable? Say an official makes a call on the field and the flag is picked up, as happens from time to time. Is it picked up because the crew got together and decided it needed to be, or was it because someone in New York doesn't like the call?"
Indeed, nearly every NFL fan base -- and some team owners -- have taken turns assuming the league plays favorites. (The issue was covered extensively in this ESPN investigation into Deflategate.) Blandino already has experienced the assumptions caused by the most minor of mistakes -- TMZ cameras caught him last year exiting a bus owned by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones during a night out in Los Angeles -- and Pereira believes the wireless connection during games will only fuel future concerns.
"Basically, what it looks like is that the league office is making decisions on who possibly wins or loses the game," Pereira said. "You could go back to the old theory of the conspiracy of the Raiders, that the league didn't like [former owner] Al Davis and all the stuff that went along with it.
"All of a sudden, decisions that were being made on the field or in the stadium, all of a sudden are being made in the league office. That seems to be the wave of where this is going. Things have changed so much, but this ... strive for perfection really isn't attainable. I wish I could be effusive in praise of all of the changes and the technology, that it can make things better.
"Maybe I will someday."