When Jerry Rosburg joined coach John Harbaugh and the Ravens in 2008 as special teams coordinator, he already knew he had a reliable kicker in Matt Stover. The greater mystery to Rosburg was Sam Koch, the club's punter who had just wrapped up his second season.
"When I arrived, Sam was doing one thing with the ball," Rosburg recalled. "He was punting in one direction, and he really had just that one skill. He couldn't punt left, he couldn't punt right, but he was very powerful and athletic and all of the things that we see all of the time."
The year before Rosburg's arrival, Koch had posted his lowest career net average and his fewest number of punts inside opponents' 20-yard line.
"My second year in the league, which seems like yesterday, was such a rough year, and for Jerry to come in, it was a dream come true, a blessing for the fact that he was the one who basically propelled me to where I'm at today," Koch said. "If it wasn't for him coming in and [kicking consultant] Randy [Brown] and us spending all the time that we have in the offseason and working on my drops and footwork and fundamentals and techniques of punting, there would be no way that I'd be here today."
Now in his 11th season, Koch is the second-longest tenured player with the Ravens, trailing only outside linebacker Terrell Suggs in longevity. Since 2008, Koch has been one of the most consistent punters in the NFL. He has finished ranked in the top 10 in net average four times, punts inside the 20 four times, and gross average twice.
Koch, who earned his first Pro Bowl invitation last fall, has developed a reputation as one of the best punters in the NFL who is admired and feared by punt returners. Devin Hester Sr., who became the league's record holder in return touchdowns with the Chicago Bears and Atlanta Falcons before joining the Ravens in September, said he did not enjoy returning punts and kicks against Koch.
"He's one of the punters you don't want to face because he has the leeway to do stuff that normal punters don't do," Hester said. "He's probably one of the best punters I've ever been around."
Koch has a variety of punts he can pull out of his bag of tricks. He can kick a ball in the opposite direction that he's facing to thwart an especially dangerous returner. He can punt a ball that knuckles. And he can add some topspin to a kick to increase the odds of the ball staying out of the end zone and inside the 10.
"As far as direction, he can go both ways," Hester said. "He can give you a hint of where he's punting the ball, and if he sees you cheating one way, he's got the skills to punt it the other way."
Rosburg said Koch's arsenal is possible only because of his determination to be perfect and master certain punts for the sake of the team. Thinking back to that winter of 2008, Rosburg said the coaching process was long, tedious — and successful.
"It was winter and that was back in the day when the offseason schedule was different," he said. "We could be together for most of the winter. We started working on a different way of dropping the ball, a different way of approaching punting, and he went to work. Those 10,000-rep issues we talk about, well, he had all of those probably in one month and altered it with the way he dropped the ball, and then he changed the way he punted. He's been at work at that ever since. Every day, he's still doing the same thing."
Koch remembers the first month spent with Rosburg with surprising fondness.
"It was like going to boot camp for punting, and I thank him for every bit of it because that's why I'm still here," he said. "Every day, we would walk up and down that field just doing drop after drop after drop. I mean, there might have been 200-some drops per day. We just focused on basically every fundamental aspect of punting — from our steps to having a smooth drop to directionally walking."
Before this weekend, Koch was tied for eighth in gross average (48.1 yards) and tied for 12th in punts inside the 20 (12). The one hiccup is a 39.1-yard net average for which Koch blames himself.
"It's a group effort, but first of all, it starts with me putting the ball where we practice, where our guys practice each and every day to go cover and get in the lanes that we practice each and every day," he said. "If I put it in a different spot, it's one of those things where we practice it thousands of times and when we get out to a game where it's not where they want it, it really throws us off a lot and it becomes just instinct for them to go out and search in certain situations."
Considering he is the franchise's longest-tenured punter, Koch ranks first in team history in punts (819), gross average (45.3), net average (39.5) and punts inside the 20 (292). Koch's cement-like grip on his position has convinced the organization to rarely challenge him with punting competition in training camp.
But Koch also understands the folly of being content in this business. The Cleveland Browns traded three-time Pro Bowler Andy Lee in August to the Carolina Panthers for 2014 undrafted punter Kasey Redfern. The reigning Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos released Britton Colquitt for rookie Riley Dixon, and the Green Bay Packers cut Tim Masthay for Jacob Schum.
"This is my 11th year, and they've just flown by," Koch said. "Ideally, my body feels like I can do this for another 11 years. But one thing that holds true is, I've got to go out there and perform every single day and every practice, and for that perception to be received by the organization that I can still go out there and perform at the top of my game. I would like to play as long as I can and continue to support an organization like this. But I need to go out there and continue to perform and be part of a great punt unit."