Seeing punter Michael Koenen walk through the Buccaneers locker room you could easily mistake him for one of the public relations interns if not for the jersey bearing his name he wears. Baby faced, shy and humble are some of the words to describe Tampa Bay’s new punter and kickoff specialist.
With a $19-million contract and the chance to face his old teammates this Sunday when the Buccaneers host the Falcons, you might expect Koenen to perhaps feel some pressure to perform. Koenen, in his calm demeanor, explained that isn’t the case.
“No, I don’t put any pressure on myself,” Koenen said. “I don’t play for what people say about me. I play because I am blessed to be able to do this. I try and honor God in my play. People will talk good about you then talk just as bad about you. It’s appreciated though. The fans I have talked to have been great and it is nice to get those compliments.”
The free agent signing of Koenen was met with skepticism by some fans and members of the media. While the punter position had been a revolving door since Josh Bidwell was placed on injured reserve in 2009, many questioned general manager Mark Dominik’s decision to commit $19 million to someone who kicks a football. While the jury is out on the money spent on Quincy Black, Davin Joseph and other free agent signings earlier this year, the Koenen deal looks like a steal so far.
Dominik explained his position on targeting Koenen during training camp.
“I’ve always told you guys I’m a big believer in special teams in terms how players make this team early on and where they go,” Dominik said. “Specifically punter and kicker are a big part of that. I think they control a lot of field position that a lot of fans sometimes take for granted. I felt like Michael [was an attractive option] because of his kickoff specialty in moving the ball up five more yards and bringing the ball out to the 20. I thought he brought a lot of value to our football team to limit kickoff returns and also keep our team healthy in a way. Not only is he a really good punter but he's a phenomenal kickoff guy and I think it's a big weapon in the National Football League and I look forward to him coming in here and showing that off.”
Averaging 49.3 yards per punt this season and only allowing an average return of 5.3 yards a return, the punt unit has surpassed expectations. With five touchbacks and only an 8.5-yard per kickoff return, few people have any valid reason to question Dominik’s judgment up until this point.
Koenen’s boss, special team’s coach Dwayne Stukes, who is in his first season as the leader of the unit, can’t say enough good things about his punter/kickoff specialist.
“It’s not just the fact that he is a great punter,” Stukes said. “People may not be noticing that he is a great kickoff guy, as well. It's kicking it out of the end zone and that saves our coverage guys. He's a duel position guy. So people can say we went out and spent all this money on a punter but he is dominating games through the first two.
“In actuality he's a good athlete and he has proven that through the first two games. Now we just have to make sure it continues throughout the season.
“A big part of things is people just want to know what a punter's average is. They don’t always take into account how many times he downs the ball inside the 20, how many times he downs the ball inside the ten. Plus the hang time gives the coverage team time to run and spread the field covering the punt returner. He has done a great job for us so far.”
After spending the first six years of his career in Atlanta, Koenen commented on his ability to move on and set roots in Tampa Bay’s locker room.
“It’s been a super easy transition,” Koenen said. “The guys were very welcoming from day one. I’m grateful for that. I feel completely comfortable in this locker room. I don’t know everybody’s name yet or backgrounds and stories but it has been really great so far.
“I love the Tampa Bay area. I love the ocean. I love the mountains in north Georgia, also. I transitioned to the weather a lot better than I thought. It's definitely as hot, if not hotter, but then it cools off with the wind off the ocean. I really like it."
One of Koenen’s teammates, whom he is very familiar with, is wide receiver and kick returner Michael Spurlock. Spurlock who has two kickoff returns for touchdowns as a Buccaneer, including the first ever in franchise history, returned both against Koenen’s Falcons.
“We joked about it when he first came over,” Spurlock said. “He showed me a picture of him diving [at me] on one of my returns. But I’m glad he's on our side now.
“A lot of people look at him as a punter and the money he is getting paid and all that, but I think he's worth every penny. He's a great guy to be around and a does a great job for us.”
In some cases players are bitter toward their former teams after being released, traded or allowed to sign with another club. But Tampa Bay’s new punter feels no animosity toward the Falcons and doesn’t think it will affect his outlook on the upcoming game Sunday.
“This will be my first time playing against a former team so we will see,” Koenen said. “I honestly don’t have any hard feelings. I’m grateful for the opportunity just to be playing football and for this organization now."