Sun, 17 Jan 2021

How Sam Koch Epitomizes What It Means to Be a Raven

Baltimore Ravens
16 Oct 2020, 22:25 GMT+10

Ryan Mink

When you think about the all-time greats of any franchise, it's typically not a punter that comes to mind.

But, in the wise words of NFL Network's Rich Eisen, punters are people too. And in the Ravens' case, Sam Koch is much more than that.

Koch is about to play in his 230th regular-season game, setting the Ravens' all-time games played mark and surpassing two men who would immediately jump to mind when thinking about what it means to be a Raven - Terrell Suggs (229 games) and Ray Lewis (228 games).

While Koch certainly will never reach their fame - nor would he want to - the longevity of his career speaks not only to the mastery of his craft, but to his evolution.

"He's the epitome of what a Raven is," said Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith, who has been with the team since 2011. "No matter what position you play, it is very difficult to make it in the NFL. And to play as long as he has, at the level he has, for an organization like this, it just shows you his dedication to his craft, and his special abilities."

It wasn't until midway through his senior year of college at Nebraska, his home state, that Koch thought he might have a chance at becoming an NFL player. His longtime agent approached him after his last game and worked to get his name out there.

The Ravens selected Koch out of Nebraska in the sixth round of the 2006 NFL Draft. Despite Koch not being one of the 10 punters invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, he was the first one off the board and one of two drafted. The Seahawks drafted Ryan Plackemeier in the seventh round and he was out of the league three years later. Koch is in his 15th season and he's never missed a game.

"Coming into the league, I wanted to come out here and prove my talents were worthwhile in this league and to take it game by game," Koch said. "And now I look back, and it's 15 years, two-hundred and something games, and it's like, 'Man, that's been quite a ride.' But there's so much more to prove, so much more that I can do."

Koch isn't one to bask in any adulation, but even though he doesn't know the exact record he's setting, he did admit it's an "enjoyable" and "very proud" moment hearing other people talking about it.

"Continuity. He's a guy who has persistence in how to do it the right way," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "I think he epitomizes what success looks like over the long haul. A guy who's dedicated to the process, taking care of the details, working extremely hard. He's incredibly competitive about what he does. The other thing that people may or may not know, he's kind of changed ... Sam is going to be remembered, in his craft, for changing the way punters punt."

When Koch was in college, he said he basically dropped the ball and booted it as far as he could. The punter he looked up to was former New York Giants punter Jeff Feagles because of the way Feagles could control the ball so well. Koch went about constantly trying to fine-tune his game.

It's a work ethic that came from his father, a longtime warehouse manager for Tenneco Automotive, an exhaust plant in Seward, Neb. It's the way Koch has been wired. When Koch arrives at the Under Armour Performance Center, he almost always has his car washed. He's so meticulous that his teammates, especially kicker Justin Tucker and long snapper Morgan Cox, tease him.

"It's the way my dad approached work every day; he never missed a day, he never took a vacation day," Koch said. "I always feel like each and every day, there's something that I can prove.

"As many people that are going to give me crap about this, when I leave for the day, I want to make sure that lawn is right, the stuff around the house is right. An then, when I get to practice and am at the facility, I make sure that everything that I do is for the right reasons; and that's to go out there and be the best that I can at this position."

Koch's punting average has climbed over the years, but what's more notable, even though it doesn't show up in the stat sheet, is the number of punts he's invented. Harbaugh doesn't even know how many tricks he has in his bag at this point, and Koch always dodges the question when asked.

Early in his career there were dynamic punt returners such as the Chiefs' Dante Hall and Browns' Joshua Cribbs. Koch said the approach was, "Let's just hit a turnover," or "Let's hit a rugby [kick] and just let them catch it. Let's see what they can do.'"

Then Antonio Brown came into the league with the Steelers and was a dynamic returner playing for the rival Steelers. Before a Sunday Night Football game in 2014, Koch and former Ravens Special Teams Coach Jerry Rosburg started tinkering with new kinds of kicks.

"It was like, 'How can we keep this ball away from him?'" Koch said. "It was one of those things that just evolved, and Jerry Rosburg, at that time, was out at practice and he goes, 'Why don't we try this?' So, we tried that, and it was very successful, obviously. We showcased it on a Sunday night against Antonio Brown. At that point, he didn't want anything to do with it."

The kick was a low-line rugby kick that got on the ground fast and just rolled. He hit two of them in that game and Brown didn't even attempt to return either because it was so unusual.

"It was one of those things that we just kind of kept building on it and working on different punts, working on different angles and the way we approach it; it just kind of led to where we are today," Koch said. "We're still trying to improve in every way; trying to find new punts and new ways we can go about getting the returners to not be so comfortable back there."

Harbaugh was a longtime special teams coach before he became the Ravens' head coach. Like Koch, he's watched how much the punting game has changed in the NFL, much like how Lamar Jackson is changing the game at quarterback.

"He's the guy who's come up with all these different types of punts and these different kicks. He's got ... I don't know how many he's got, but it's many, many of them," Harbaugh said. "It's with the directional punting, the way he sprays the ball around, puts it on the sideline and the different rotations he uses, these are all things that punters are copying now. You see it, really, all around the league right now. So, he'll be remembered for that for a long time."

While Justin Tucker gets much of the adulation among the Ravens' specialists, Koch is the leader of "The Wolfpack". It's the way he approaches his craft with a relentless pursuit of perfection. Heck, he's even perfect as a passer - 7-for-7 over his career. He's the most accurate passer in NFL history.

Koch's inner drive came from his father. His leadership came from watching Lewis and longtime kicker Matt Stover. Koch was asked how long he wants to continue to punt in the NFL. After 15 years, he said he's still taking it one rep at a time, just like he did as a rookie.

"Every single rep that I have during practice, I know somebody's watching, and more importantly, I know personally, I'm watching. And so, if it's not to my standards, I'm going to do everything I can to make it right and to get better form it," Koch said.

"[I] go out and approach each day to make the best of it, to do my job [and] help out Tucker in any way, whether it is to keep him from talking so much. Usually, Morgan [Cox] keeps us grounded. But keeping our games at the top of our abilities, hold each other accountable, and to go out there and be the best trio that's ever played this game. And we take great pride in that, as well as the whole special teams here at the Ravens. And I look forward to many years and many more punts."

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