Sam Koch remembers the humbling words like he heard them yesterday.
He’d already spent two seasons punting for the Ravens. But as he sat in the office of his new special teams coach, Jerry Rosburg, on a winter morning in 2008, he faced a reckoning.
“Wow,” Rosburg said after reviewing Koch’s statistics. “The way you hold a ball and you were able to do that? That’s pretty impressive, because I don’t know how you hit some of those balls.”
As Koch tells it, he might as well have been trying to kick a haphazardly tossed beach ball as far as he could. His technique was mostly self-taught, and to Rosburg’s exacting eye, not sustainable.
“He had talent, obviously, because he was an incredible athlete,” Rosburg recalled. “But he needed to find a way to use those talents technically. He really wasn’t on a very good path at that time.”
So they went to work, repeating basic drop drills on the Ravens' indoor practice field as snow coated the grass outside. The sessions vibed with Koch’s fastidious nature; he did not mind rebuilding his style from scratch as long as he saw the purpose in it.
That’s still the case 12 years later. On Sunday, Koch will play his 230th game as a Raven, surpassing former teammate Terrell Suggs as the franchise’s all-time leader. At age 38, he’s a better punter than he was when he started by any statistical measure. Those who know him best point to several reasons: his unstinting concern for details, his openness to constructive criticism, his grounded family-guy routines.
Rosburg and Ravens coach John Harbaugh see Koch as a revolutionary who pushed NFL punting into new realms. But even his most eye-popping innovations — the misdirection punts, the low tumblers that confounded deadly returners such as Antonio Brown and Josh Cribbs — sprang from the same quiet doggedness that drove him to those morning sessions in 2008. Whether it’s mowing his lawn in Westminster or booming a football into a 5-yard window along the sideline, he does not grow bored trying to do a thing the right way.
“My first impressions of Sam were the same as my impressions today,” said Ravens long snapper Morgan Cox, who joined Koch on the roster in 2010. “He’s extremely, extremely attentive to detail. A punt could be, in most people’s eyes, perfect, and he wants to find a way to improve it.”
“Highly skilled at all of his jobs,” said kicker Justin Tucker, who came along in 2012 to form the “Wolfpack” triumvirate with Koch and Cox. “Just watching him put the ball exactly where he wanted to time and time again, I had never seen anything quite like that. And how hard he was on himself then vs. what he is now, he’s been remarkably consistent.”
The world around Koch has certainly changed since he walked in the door in 2006. Steve McNair was the quarterback then, Brian Billick the head coach and Matt Stover the placekicker. He’s continued honing his craft as generations of teammates have come and gone. Cornerback Jimmy Smith described him as “the epitome of what a Raven is.”
Koch watched his father, Dave, refuse to take vacations from his job managing an auto manufacturing warehouse in Seward, Nebraska. His wife, Nikki, keeps their house showroom-clean despite the best efforts of four children ranging from elementary school- to college-aged. He’s happiest among people who are never satisfied.
“Each and every rep is a way for me to go out there and prove my worth,” he said, his closely trimmed scalp covered, as usual, by a worn ballcap. “If it’s not to my standards, I’m going to do everything I can to make it right.”
Koch cannot discuss his career without deflecting credit to those who’ve helped him, from Rosburg and his successor Chris Horton, to Tucker and Cox, on down to the least experienced members of the Ravens' training staff. This speaks to another quality that has sustained him, a yen for collaboration.
He’s devoted himself to lessons from Rosburg and kicking coach Randy Brown, and his nine-season partnership with Cox and Tucker might be the most enduring of its kind in the NFL. Cox refers to their group scheming as the team’s “R&D department.”
To this day, there’s pepper in the exchanges between Wolfpack members as they attack every issue head on.
“Sam’s a tough boss,” Cox said, laughing. “We don’t shy away from words, the three of us. I know Sam’s form as well as anybody, so if I see something dipping a little bit … I’ll point it out. Same thing with him for me. It’s never a personal thing, but it’s, ‘Hey, let’s not take a step back.’”
Tucker, who still draws jabs from the other two for his motor mouth, described Koch as “his own and everyone else’s toughest critic.”
Don’t let all this talk of work ethic and unselfishness obscure a simple fact about Koch — he’s one hellacious athlete. He was recruited as a linebacker out of high school before becoming a full-time punter at the University of Nebraska. Every Ravens fan can quote his 7-for-7 record on passes off fake punts. But it’s nearly as impressive to watch him loft spiral after perfect spiral to the team’s receivers during pregame warm-ups.
When cornhole was the game of choice in the Ravens' locker room, Koch ruled the standings, spotting teammates 20 points in a race to 21 and still beating them. At cornerback Lardarius Webb’s charity softball game, he was the perennial home run champion. He’s a ruthless 3-point shootout opponent on the basketball court.
Each competition he approaches with unfussy self-belief.
“Sam is one of the best overall athletes that I know,” former teammate Torrey Smith wrote on Twitter after watching Koch complete his latest first-down pass against the Washington Football Team. “He just happens to punt.”
Cox remembered watching in awe during the Ravens' famous 2013 playoff win over the Denver Broncos as Koch nearly ran down world-class sprinter Trindon Holliday on a return. After the game, he saw a tweet from Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson congratulating Holliday but adding “punter’s got wheels.”
If the Wolfpack members went head to head in a multi-sport competition, “Tuck and I would definitely be in a battle for second place,” Cox said (though Tucker refuses to concede ping-pong preeminence to his elder).
Kidding aside, the most accurate place kicker in NFL history said he benefits enormously from Koch’s hand-eye coordination as a holder. “His ability to consistently spot the ball at the exact angle I like it at, with the laces pointed directly at our small target within the uprights, is second to none,” Tucker said.
In practice, Rosburg used to fire offline snaps at Koch, who would inevitably snare the ball, sometimes with one hand, and pull it back to perfect position. “Ridiculous,” the retired special teams coordinator said. “He’s clearly, clearly the best holder of the football in the history of the National Football League.”
Koch has described many times how he began adding to his array of punts in 2014 as he sought to neutralize returners such as Brown, then approaching his playmaking zenith for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Could he get Brown leaning the wrong way if he cloaked his direction until the last second? Could he make the ball stop dead on the turf or skip jaggedly past a frozen returner?
These days, Rosburg notices Koch’s tricks popping up in the arsenals of college punters. “In my humble opinion, he’s changed the way the football is punted,” he said. “They had to learn it from somebody, and that somebody is Sam Koch.”
Those around Koch see no reason why he can’t keep rolling for many years. Cox described him as “38 going on 21” in fitness terms.
“You come out to practice any Wednesday, and if the ball isn’t coming off his foot exactly how he wants, he’ll get pissed off,” Tucker said. “It’s ongoing for him, and that’s a large part of the reason why he’s better now than he was five or 10 years ago.”
Every so often, Koch and Cox will pull out tape from 2010 and cringe at their unrefined form. “Ugh … I do not like to go back and look at that,” Koch groaned. He averaged 39.2 yards net in that, his fifth season. He’s at 43 so far this year, with almost half his punts pinning opponents inside their own 20-yard lines.
“He just looks like a different punter, from a body standpoint, from a form standpoint, from a poise standpoint,” Cox marveled. “You can see the compound interest from how Sam has improved over the years.”