Younghoe Koo: ’I’ve learned it’s never OK to get comfortable in this league’

Younghoe Koo found himself in a predicament.

Back home in New Jersey this offseason, Koo wanted to keep his routine, which included kicking on some of the local football fields. But when the COVID-19 pandemic forced much of the world to shut down, he found himself looking for places to kick with the local fields and parks closed. In fact, he said police officers asked him to leave the premises of different fields.

Koo had to come up with another plan to get in his kicks.

“I ended up finding a field, a patch of grass and kicking at a tree or something, getting creative to get the work in,” Koo said.

Koo was like a lot of players who needed to figure new ways to keep training. But having ended the 2019 season as the Falcons’ place-kicker, Koo wanted to continue his training regimen so that he could keep his team’s trust after a season that saw him make 23 of his 26 field goal attempts.

While Koo, who signed with the Falcons after the team released veteran kicker Matt Bryant during the bye week, had a successful eight-game stretch to close the season, he knows everything can change in an instant.

As a rookie with the Los Angeles Chargers in 2017, Koo won the starting job over Josh Lambo and opened the year as the team’s kicker. But after four games, which included making only one of his first four career attempts, the Chargers waived Koo. That decision came after he made a field goal in each of his third and fourth games, too.

Koo realized then that it doesn’t take much for a team to give up on a kicker. The next time he was given a chance to start for an NFL team he said he’d make sure he was ready to take the job and hold it.

“My first year with the Chargers definitely taught me a lot,” Koo said. “It was definitely the greatest learning experience I could’ve had as a kicker and a person. That experience I had carried over and I knew what I had to work on. When the opportunity came I knew I would be ready. It wasn’t something that happened overnight. I just put the work in and stayed disciplined and waited for that chance. When it came I was ready to go.”

It took some time, over a year to be exact, which included a detour to the now-defunct Alliance of American Football with the Atlanta Legends in the spring of 2019. But last fall, Koo was signed to the New England Patriots’ practice squad on Oct. 4 before being released on Oct. 15. The Falcons then signed Koo two weeks later and started him in a Week 10 road game against the New Orleans Saints. In his Falcons debut, a 26-9 victory, Koo made all four of his field-goal attempts and both extra-point attempts. From there, the Falcons stuck with Koo for the remainder of the season.

In addition to place-kicking duties, Koo also handled kickoffs, which included the occasional onside kick. And Koo was easily the most fortunate of anyone in the league in this department.

Late in the fourth quarter in a 26-18 home loss to the New Orleans Saints, Koo converted two onside kicks, with one of those conversions coming after a successful attempt that was overruled due to a penalty.

After the play with the penalty, which saw Russell Gage knock the ball away from Alvin Kamara and into Foye Oluokun’s hands, Koo kicked the ball into an open hole with Oluokun cleanly recovering the ball. After hitting a 43-yard field goal on the ensuing drive, Koo attempted another onside kick that got a fortunate high bounce. Oluokun bounced the ball off of Kamara with Kemal Ishmael recovering. The Falcons, however, were unable to convert this attempt into a game-tying touchdown and two-point conversion.

Later in the year, Koo attempted a surprise onside kick against the San Francisco 49ers to start the third quarter. He recovered it himself, with the play being overruled due to an illegal formation penalty. Koo’s lone failed onside attempt came in a loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Officially, Koo converted two of his three attempts but also had two conversions called back due to penalty. To put this in perspective, all NFL place-kickers combined to convert on only 12.9 percent of onside kicks. Koo was asked about this but deferred his success rate to his teammates.

“That’s not me,” Koo said. “That’s the rest of the team hustling their butt off to get the ball. I’m just kicking the ball and it got lucky bounces here and there. Guys just hustled their butt off to get the ball. Credit to them.”

Even though Koo signed a tender to remain with the Falcons for the 2020 season, coach Dan Quinn said he wanted to add competition to the position. The pandemic changed that since teams weren’t able to hold tryouts until as recent as Aug. 11. As a result, the Falcons elected against adding a competitive element at practice. Even so, Quinn said he feels good about the progress Koo has made this preseason.

“There are specific things you can measure and track,” Quinn said. “From the kicking side, Koo has really dialed into the thing that he wanted to improve on. He’s had a hell of a camp kicking.”

A year ago, the Falcons released Bryant and elected not to bring in competition for Giorgio Tavecchio, who was initially tabbed as his replacement. Tavecchio proceeded to have a rocky preseason and was ultimately waived, with the Falcons calling Bryant back to replace him.

Different circumstances have prevented the Falcons from being able to offer Koo competition this time around. But Koo has approached each practice as if he’s still battling for a roster spot, considering what happened when he was with the Chargers.

“Through my experience I’ve learned it’s never OK to get comfortable in this league,” Koo said. “You have to produce right now. I know I don’t have competition right now in person but I understand that I’m always getting evaluated and I’m competing against people not necessarily here, but I’m always competing against somebody.”