When the Redskins hit the field for the start of training camp on Thursday, all eyes that won’t be on rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III will probably be on the battles to start at running back, No. 2 receiver behind Pierre Garcon, and at the safeties.
No other starting spots are really open, but there is another competition worth watching that will take place almost totally out of the spotlight other than during the four preseason games. That’s the duel between incumbent kicker Graham Gano and Neil Rackers, the 12-year veteran whom Washington signed away from Houston during the offseason.
“We have two guys who’ve done it in the league, two good competitors,” special teams coach Danny Smith said. “We’ve got a battle. We’ve got what we were setting out to do.”
The battle was prompted by the bizarre 2011 season by Washington’s field goal unit which had more snafus (five attempts blocked, another that failed to launch before time ran out in the second quarter) than actual missed tries (five). And all four of Gano’s errant kicks after the opener were from at least 49 yards.
“I just have to control what I can control and just worry about putting the ball through the uprights,” said the 25-year-old Gano, who became Washington’s kicker in December 2009, making him a relatively rare survivor of coach Mike Shanahan’s 2-1/2 years roster purge. “You take the blocks away and I was 86 percent. I feel like I had a successful year and I want to build on it.”
Rackers, who’ll be 36 next month, had a successful year for the Texans, setting a franchise record with 135 points while hitting 32 of 38 field goal attempts. But they only offered Rackers the veteran’s minimum so he opted for a better deal from the Redskins even though Gano was relatively established.
“I enjoyed my visit here and decided it was a good spot,” said Rackers, the ninth-leading active scorer. “2005 personally (when he was chosen for the Pro Bowl) was a big year, but going to the Super Bowl with the Cardinals In 2008), a team that hadn’t done it in so long … that’s kind of what I see here, a lot of talent, a lot of good people.”
Picking the Redskins, who are 11-21 under Shanahan and 15-33 the past three seasons, to go to the Super Bowl is crazy. Picking the winner of the Gano-Rackers battle should be much harder.
“Neil’s been consistent during his career,” said Smith, noting that Rackers won summer competitions in Cincinnati, Arizona and Houston. “When you have the opportunity to get a competitor like that, you want to get him. Every kick we’ve asked him to make, he’s made. They’ve both got strong enough legs. Graham’s fine (in the wake of a back injury that prevented him kicking from January-April). I like everything about Graham. I just want him to be mentally tougher.”
Although Gano didn’t have competition in camp in 2010 and was only briefly challenged by veteran Shayne Graham last summer, he hasn’t freaked out in the face of a serious threat to his job.
“I knew it was coming,” said Gano, whose field goal operation was just 24 of 35 in 2010 with a comedy of errors that included three holders. “I just didn’t know who it was going to be. I grew up watching Neil. He’s a good kicker. (But) I look at it as I’m the only kicker here and all I have to do is make my kicks and I don’t have to worry about anything else.”
Rackers, having endured some of the typical kicker’s journeyman life, isn’t quite as cocky as his competition.
“You go out and do your job and they like you or they don’t,” said Rackers, who nailed at least 84 percent of his field goal tries in five of the past seven seasons. “You’ll age quick in this league if you worry about what (the coaches are) thinking. Sometimes (the kicks) go through and sometimes they don’t. How you’re going to hit the next one is the one that’s important. I feel great. I’ve been hitting the ball strong. I’m ready to go to work. I’m going to do this until 32 teams tell me no. If someone wants to give me a job at 70, I’ll do it then, too.”
The question is which kicker will get it done better this summer.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin
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