The Baltimore Ravens line up in punt formation, deep in their own territory. A breeze behind him, punter Sam Koch stands fourteen yards behind the line of scrimmage. He takes the snap cleanly and kicks... but instead of soaring high into the air like most punts, the ball stays low.
The kick travels over fifty yards before hitting the ground but it's in the air for less than four seconds; the league benchmark is closer to five seconds to give the punt coverage team as much time as possible to get down field.
People around me groan, assuming it's a terrible kick, but then their groans turn to cheers as the ball rolls another fifteen yards before being downed by a Raven.
The guy in front of me turns and says to his friend, "That was lucky."
In fact, luck had nothing to do with it, because Sam Koch (pronounced "cook") has, without many fans noticing it, redefined the art -- and skill -- of punting.
Here's another in my series in which I pick a topic and connect with someone a lot smarter than me.
This time I talked with Ravens punter Sam Koch, an NFL veteran who finally earned his first Pro Bowl selection last year -- in his tenth season.
While he finished fourth at his position in fan voting, votes from players and coaches vaulted him into first place, showing that while the average fan may not understand how his kicking has changed, people in the league certainly do - well after the average punter's career has already ended.
The stats back up his transformation. Between his rookie season in 2006 to Week 8 of 2014 Sam averaged 39.03 net yards per punt, landing him 28th among other punters. Since then Sam has averaged 44.39 net yards per punt.
And he's managed that success while maintaining a healthy work-life balance -- he and his wife Nicole have four kids: Ryan, Braxtyn, Kamdyn, and Gianna.
(I told you he was smarter than me.)
The goal of punting seems simple: kick the ball as high and as far as you can.
In basic terms that's true, but that's also a limited view of what is possible.
When we started this our goal was to keep punt returners on their toes. They've gotten so good at catching turnover punts (spiral punts where the leading point of the ball travels upwards and then "turns over" at the top of its trajectory to aim towards the ground.)
The goal was to force punt returners to make a split-second decision: do I go for this punt or not?
To do that we needed to view punting in a different way. And of course that created a risk/reward equation for me, because it meant I had to do things differently.
Walk me through the evolution of some of your different kicks.
At first we started with me setting up as if I was going to kick in one direction and kicking across my body so the ball traveled in the other direction. The view we give the returner makes him anticipate one thing, and when it turns out to be another he has to make a split-second decision and adjust and move... and often by that time a gunner is there.
Then there's a hook punt that drifts and drops in the shape of an "S," making it harder to catch. There's a knuckleball that's also harder to catch. There's a rip line drive that I want to get on the ground so it will roll.
And there are others... but the key is not just to kick differently but also to set up in a way that the returner can't tell what is coming.
The element of surprise is important; our goal is to make the other team think.
Isn't it hard to put a spiral where you want it?
Sure, but kicking with a spiral is a necessity unless you're trying to place the ball inside the twenty yard-line.
In places like Pittsburgh and Cleveland the wind conditions can mean you have to have a nice tight spiral in order to really drive the ball.
Last year I had about 80 punts and only one went to the middle of the field. I pride myself on the fact the majority of my punts fall between the numbers and the sideline.
Keep in mind the difference between hitting a great and a mediocre punt can be a fraction of an inch on a football.
Sometimes punting isn't just about distance and hang time. There's a balance between that and, say, making a punt harder to catch, or ensuring a return man can't build momentum before the catch...
Wind and field conditions are definitely a factor. In a head wind we have no choice but to focus less on hang time and more on distance and direction. If the wind is in my face, I have to spiral the ball and keep it low to drive it and keep it out of the wind. If it's a calm day we have an opportunity to use all sorts of punts.
But there are lots of other factors. If a returner sees me aiming towards the sidelines he'll shade towards the alley between the hash marks and the numbers, or even to the numbers. If I see him cheating over, we can use signals to change the call at the line of scrimmage.
But sometimes we don't even signal. Our core group is really good at understanding what we're trying to do and reading the situation. They quickly sift through all the variables to know where the ball is going to go.
In a way developing different kicks could be like messing with your golf swing. Did you worry that adding too many wrinkles would throw off your core process?
Absolutely. That's what I was saying as far as the risk/reward factor. Still, when we started this, I felt we had to go all in. Plus, I enjoy doing something different.
I do think of it like a golf bag. I'll use different "clubs" depending on the wind, the field surface, how the ball is rolling... I like having options.
But if developing different kicks had not worked out, it could have been a disaster. Every NFL punter is fighting for his job because there are only 32 of those jobs. Of course that also created an opportunity, since deciding the reward could be worth the risk was something Jerry Rosburg (special teams coach) and Randy Brown (kicking consultant) and I could capitalize on.
In the NFL the data generated is incredibly comprehensive... but aside from statistics, how do you define success?
I start with hitting a solid ball and executing the punt we called in the huddle.
Some days we're not looking for big numbers. Some days it's controlling the ball and netting over 40 yards. (In punting, gross yards are the total yards the kick traveled, measured from the line of scrimmage; net yards subtract any yards gained by the punt returner. So a ball that travels 48 yards and is returned 12 yards results in a 36-yard net.)
Nets have steadily increased over the last six or seven years. In 2007 I don't think anyone had a 40-yard net average. Last year more than 20 teams netted over 40 yards.
I consider anything less than 42 yards net a bad day. And even if I do net 42 yards, if I don't hit the ball the way I want and put it where I want, that's still a bad day, because my job is to execute.
Speaking of execution: you're standing on the field with thousands of people in the stands and millions of people watching, and more importantly your teammates depending on you...
We spend hours and hours during practice to build the confidence I need to execute.
When I practice, I mentally put myself in game-ending situations. Jerry and Randy find ways to get my anxiety going in practice, too. That way when I'm on the field I can just focus on replicating what I do in practice.
When I'm setting up for a punt in a game, the only thing in my mind is breathing and keeping a visual of the target down field that I'm going for. Typically, that target is a point out of bounds. I picture that and clear my mind.
When you know you've prepared well you can be confident and can perform. I know that sounds simple, but we spend hours every day trying to figure it out.
But you don't punt in a vacuum. Stuff can happen: the snap can be less than perfect...
Once a week we do bad ball drills. We don't have (long snapper) Morgan Cox do it because we don't want him to throw bad balls, so we use other people.
The goal is to be ready to execute regardless of what happens.
If we compare what you guys do to people running companies, competitive intelligence is a lot easier to gain in the NFL because there's film, there's data... so you always have to be evolving.
A lot of credit goes to our front office. They're constantly seeking to evolve and improve, and that sifts down to us.
Each game is about going out there and being better than the opposite team... and better than the other punter... and better than myself.
This is an amazing organization. There really are no stones left unturned. There's a good reason for that: in the NFL you can never be complacent because everyone around you is trying to get better. We're constantly learning new things on the field and in the classroom.
Resiliency is also critical. If we do happen to fail, we need to get back on our feet and execute the way we've practiced.
Every coach, from Coach Harbaugh on down, does everything they can to prepare our team to play Raven football. We hear all the time from people that come from other organizations how they thought they loved it at their last team and had no idea what they were missing.
These guys treat you like men. Everything they do is about making this team better.