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Sam Farmer / ON THE NFL

Taking a Risk for Right Mix

September 08, 2006|Sam Farmer

In these days of linebackers who play only on passing downs, specialty running backs and assistant-to-the-assistant coaches, the Atlanta Falcons have gone refreshingly old school.

If they need to put foot to football, whether it be a kick or a punt, they turn to one player.

That player is Michael Koenen, the NFL's first kicker/punter/kickoff man since Frank Corral pulled triple duty for the Los Angeles Rams in 1981. It's nothing out of the ordinary for Koenen (pronounced KAY-nen), a second-year player who handled all the kicking and punting for four seasons at Western Washington. He's only the second player from that school to appear in a regular-season NFL game.

Koenen is part pioneer, part lab rat, a player who could cause other teams to rethink how many spots they devote to the kicking game on their 46-man active roster.

"It could," he said, when asked whether that might become a league-wide trend. "That's how they used to do it. I guess it depends on how this trial goes. But [the Falcons] are always looking for ways to win, always looking for ways to be better than other people."

But General Manager Rich McKay said the Falcons were not out to save a roster spot by reducing two jobs to one. "He earned both of them," McKay said of Koenen.

Regardless, Atlanta is taking a roster risk by putting both responsibilities on the shoulders of one player. Then again, just about all of the league's 32 franchises have gambled in one area or another, skimping at one position and overloading at another.

Nine teams are going with only two quarterbacks, with most keeping a third on the practice squad just in case. Those teams are Baltimore (starter Steve McNair and backup Kyle Boller), New England (Tom Brady and Matt Cassel), Pittsburgh (Ben Roethlisberger and Charlie Batch, though it was Batch and Brian St. Pierre against the Dolphins in Thursday's opener), Indianapolis (Peyton Manning and Jim Sorgi), Houston (David Carr and Sage Rosenfels), Carolina (Jake Delhomme and Chris Weinke), Dallas (Drew Bledsoe and Tony Romo), Denver (Jake Plummer and Jay Cutler), and San Diego (Philip Rivers and Charlie Whitehurst).

The Broncos have gone three consecutive seasons with only a starter and backup at quarterback, and former offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak obviously felt good enough about the philosophy to use it in Houston when he became coach of the Texans.

"I think a lot of it has to do with what you think about your third" quarterback, Kubiak said, "whether or not he has a chance to eventually be a one or a two."

Even with three quarterbacks, the Vikings are taking a risk. They were hoping Mike McMahon could back up starter Brad Johnson, but they gave up on that plan when McMahon was outplayed this summer by Tarvaris Jackson, a promising rookie from Alabama State. Good as Jackson was, he wasn't ready to step into the No. 2 spot, so the team made a trade with the New York Jets last week for quarterback Brooks Bollinger. He has basically been sleeping at team headquarters so he can get up to speed on the Vikings offense.

Then there are the Dolphins, who loaded up with 10 defensive linemen, six of whom are in their 30s. They tried to trade one for a running back but wound up filling that need when Cleveland waived Lee Suggs.

The New York Jets didn't anticipate running back would be a problem for them, even though Curtis Martin informed them before the draft that his injured knee wasn't coming around. But the Jets waited until the fourth round to draft a running back and did next to nothing to address the issue in free agency. Finally, the Jets traded for Kevan Barlow, whose production has decreased steadily since 2003.

All over the league there's the sound of tumbling dice. The Raiders are starting three rookies, and have four offensive linemen who are new or at new positions. The Ravens kept seven running backs -- strange, because they often use a single-back formation -- and had to cut corners at receiver and offensive line to do so. The Broncos plan to get by with three defensive tackles.

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Koenen is fiddling around with a fourth discipline.

"I tried a drop-kick the other day, just joking around," he said. "I'm not very consistent with it."

Maybe we'll see him give it a try this season. Hey, what's a little risk now and then?

Fallen Stars

This could grab the attention of Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander: STATS LLC notes the last four Super Bowl losers were forced to weather the loss of at least one star player the following season.

In 2005, Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb (groin) was sidelined for seven games. The season before, Carolina receiver Steve Smith played in only one game before suffering a season-ending broken leg.

In 2003, Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon sat out all but seven games because of a shoulder injury. And in 2002, St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner was sidelined for nine games with hand and finger injuries.

We're No. 2! (Or Maybe No. 3)

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