Reporting David Elfin
Although he had coached nine seasons for Philadelphia, Detroit and Buffalo before coming to Washington in 2004, Danny Smith had become a virtual Redskins lifer.
The wiry, gray-haired Smith, who chews gum as intensely as he coaches, had been in charge of Washington’s special teams throughout Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs’ second tenure, Jim Zorn’s two-year stint and Mike Shanahan’s first three seasons. Among the players and coaches, only Chris Cooley had been around Redskins Park as long as Smith. But since the former star tight end was gone for nearly two months after being cut last August and doesn’t figured to be re-signed for 2013, Smith was going to be the only man left who remembered such players as Antonio Pierce, Laveranues Coles and Rod Gardner.
But after helping Washington end a four-year playoff drought this season, the 59-year-old Smith has signed with the Steelers to return to his native Pittsburgh where his father has been ill for several years.
Ironically, not only does Smith leave after newcomer Kai Forbath apparently finally solved the kicker headache that has plagued the Redskins for nearly two decades, he’ll be reunited in Pittsburgh with Shaun Suisham, one of eight kickers whom Washington employed during his nine seasons.
You know your Redskins if you can name John Hall, Ola Kimrin, Jeff Chandler, Nick Novak, Graham Gano and Billy Cundiff as the others. Smith’s revolving door at punter began with Tom Tupa and ended with Sav Rocca. In between, Andy Groom, Derrick Frost, Durant Brooks, Ryan Plackemeier, Glenn Pakulak, Sam Paulescu, Hunter Smith and Josh Bidwell all punted for Washington. As was true of Novak, Hunter Smith and Paulescu had two stints with the Redskins.
Danny Smith’s most reliable return man was the unspectacular Rock Cartwright, but Chad Morton, James Thrash, Antonio Brown, Ladell Betts, Santana Moss, Antwaan Randle El, Brandon Banks, Devin Thomas, Niles Paul and Richard Crawford also regularly brought back punts and kickoffs the past nine years.
For all of that instability, Smith employed just three snappers: Ethan Albright (2004-09), Nick Sundberg (2010-present) and Justin Snow (Weeks 2-9 this year while Sundberg recovered from a broken arm).
“For all the turmoil I had to deal with in Washington, my corner of the world was very stable because of Danny,” said Albright, who signed with the Redskins in 2001. “He was honest and consistent from the very first day. Playing for Danny, I never felt I went on the field unprepared. I can’t say that about all my coaches. And Danny wears his emotions on his sleeve. He always got us to play hard. Everyone bought in to what he wanted us to do.”
That was most evident with Smith’s coverage teams which were usually among the NFL’s best. He molded such diverse men as the deeply religious Thrash, the bull-headed Mike Sellers, gung-ho Reed Doughty, jack-of-all-trades Lorenzo Alexander, and steady Kedric Golston, all of whom had been starters at some point during their Washington careers, into a unit that operated as one, much like a fine offensive line.
That consistent excellence was finally recognized when special teams captain Alexander, who led the league in special teams tackles, was voted the NFC’s Pro Bowl special teams player in December.
With Alexander (presuming he re-signs) in charge of the coverage teams, Forbath settling in as the kicker, Sundberg healthy again at snapper, impending free agent Rocca expected to return as the punter despite his coming 40th birthday, and Crawford and Paul seemingly ready to supplant Banks for good, Washington’s special teams are in the best shape they have been since punter Matt Turk and return man Brian Mitchell made them a big factor during the late 1990s.
So if Smith had to leave, now is probably the right time. Which, other than his father’s situation, is why Shanahan gave the Steelers permission to talk to him.
It won’t come close in most eyes to the departures from Washington of Gibbs, Cooley, former heartbeat of the offense Clinton Portis, or six-time Pro Bowl left tackle Chris Samuels, but inside a corner of Redskins Park, an era has ended.
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