Thursday, December 15, 2016

The hidden revolution in NFL punting

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. ...

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.
--Kevin Seifert, ESPN.com, on innovation where none seemed possible