Every week during the season, The Baltimore Sun will spotlight how a member of the Ravens organization does his or her job.
It’s weird to say this of a punter, but watching Sam Koch practice is a joy.
On one kick, the 12th-year Raven might send the ball soaring on a line over the returner’s head. On the next, he might make it stop directly in front of the guy, then spin crazily away.
“I don’t think I could even make the ball do that with my hands,” one observer muttered on a recent morning at the team’s training complex in Owings Mills.
Asked how he would describe his job to a child or someone who’s never watched a football game, Koch offers a quizzical look.
I pay a lot of attention to details. Each and every day that goes by, I still learn something new. I’m still trying to figure out how to punt a ball.— Ravens punter Sam Koch
“That’s interesting. I don’t know that I’ve ever been asked that,” he said.
On the most basic level, he kicks a ball for a living. But like most top-notch craftsmen, he has found universes of intrigue in his seemingly narrow pursuit.
How many ways can a human foot make an oblong ball soar or spin or flutter or veer? At age 35, Koch is still finding out.
“I pay a lot of attention to details,” he said. “Each and every day that goes by, I still learn something new. I’m still trying to figure out how to punt a ball.”
For those paying attention, the world of NFL punting has become a lot more interesting in recent seasons. You have physical monsters like Johnny Hekker of the Los Angeles Rams, who resembles an outside linebacker more than he does Ray Guy (still the only pure punter in the Hall of Fame). You have showmen like Marquette King of the Oakland Raiders. And out on the vanguard, you have wizards of torque and spin, like Koch.
This current, more experimental, more successful phase of Koch’s career began with a 2014 trip to Pittsburgh, much like the one the Ravens will make Sunday.
Koch respected Steelers returner Antonio Brown so deeply that he wanted to hit him with something other than the usual directional kicks.
From his college days at Nebraska through his first eight seasons with the Ravens, Koch had devoted himself to mastering a single method — hit the ball high and deep as possible and try to pin the returner to the sideline. He was very good at it.
But with Brown in mind and with encouragement from special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg, Koch began fiddling with misdirection punts on which he’d angle his body toward one sideline and then whip his leg around to drive the ball toward the other.
“We just wanted to set ourselves apart from everybody,” Koch said. “Rather than let the returners camp underneath the ball, now they have to think.”
He punted six times in that Sunday night game against the Steelers. Brown didn’t return a single one.
Buoyed by that success, Koch immersed himself in an ever-expanding world of punt possibilities, from knucklers to low liners to devilish hooks. He sounds like a baseball pitcher going through his repertoire, which includes as many as 13 different kicks when you consider distance and direction.
He generally doesn’t know which ones he’ll employ until he gets to the field on game day and accounts for weather conditions and other variables. He says he’s no longer daunted by any setting — even a frigid, blustery night at Heinz Field — because he’s practiced techniques for every wind and weather scenario. In fact, he almost relishes inhospitable conditions on practice days so he can test his craft against the elements.
The results of his exploration are undeniable.
Koch led the league in net punting average in 2014. He finished second and made the Pro Bowl in 2015.
This year, Koch has pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line 31 times, three more than any other punter in the league. His efforts have been especially important given the Ravens’ offensive struggles, because he gradually tilts the field-position advantage, and in conjunction with the defense, gives his team shorter distances to cover.
Koch didn’t self-identify as a punter until after his freshman year at Nebraska, where he was also recruited to play linebacker. He’s a good all-around athlete, as fans have seen on his two successful pass attempts this season.
Asked if Koch could hold his own as a third-string quarterback, starter Joe Flacco chuckled and said, “He definitely has the ability to throw the football. Whether he has any idea as to what’s going on back there, who knows?”
But the truth is, Koch would never want the job. He’s content to know that each time he takes the field, the world will briefly shrink to a solitary place in which only his leg and the ball exist.
That narrow pursuit of mastery fits his personality.
“Even everything that I do at home, whether it be helping with the kids or mowing the lawn or building something, I’m always paying attention to the fine details,” he said. “So it just kind of corresponds.”
It’s a perspective he shares with his two closest football companions, Ravens kicker Justin Tucker and long snapper Morgan Cox.
They are a team within a team.
They walk out to practice together. They leave the field together. Outside of work, they gather their families for frivolity at Koch’s Westminster homestead (he and his wife, Nikki, have four kids, ages 4 to 19).
You might hear Koch tease Tucker for being a superstar and a motormouth. But you’ll almost never hear a member of the triad take credit for an accomplishment without citing the other two.
What unites them, along with Rosburg and kicking coach Randy Brown, is an unstinting compulsion to deconstruct and perfect every microsecond of each punt or field-goal attempt.
Once a week, Koch watches tape of his punts with Tucker, Cox and Brown, assessing everything from the technique on his ball drop to the wisdom of his approach to given game scenarios.
But he also considers holding for Tucker a full 50 percent of his practice regimen.
When Koch describes the level of detail at which the Ravens operate to players from other teams, they’re often dumbfounded.
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At the Pro Bowl in 2016, Koch drew bemused looks from other players when he nudged the special-teams unit out for a round of early practice at the Hawaiian resort where they were staying.
Ravens guard Marshal Yanda had mentioned going out for casual drinks the day before a previous Pro Bowl and then feeling a step slow during the game.
“You’ve got to get yourself right,” Koch said. “You don’t want to go out for the Pro Bowl and hit a couple of bad balls.”
To him, it just makes sense never to waste a kick. He can only punt so many times in a given week of practice before he wears out his leg. So he needs to get something out of each one, whether it’s reinforcing muscle memory or gathering intelligence on a new technique.
At this point, it’s very rare for him not to know what a football is going to do after it leaves his foot.
He doesn’t judge himself by the most popular punting stats such as net average and kicks inside the 20. He’s past that to a deeper feel for his craft.
“I want to hit every punt the way I want,” he said. “Stats can be misleading. For me, it’s more executing the ball that we had said we wanted and helping the team. If I executed and accomplished what I set out to do on every punt, then to me, that’s a win-win game.”