Reporting David Elfin
For nine years, through the second Washington tenure of Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs, that of the offbeat Jim Zorn, and the first four years of the Mike Shanahan era, Redskins practices were defined by one voice: Danny Smith’s. The irrepressible special teams coach somehow yelled loudly a mile a minute even with a mouthful of his beloved Bazooka bubble gum.
But Smith left for his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers in January, so it’s up to Keith Burns to try to replace him. The 41-year-old Burns had been a special teams assistant with Denver for six seasons, but this is his first command. The T.C. Williams alumnus also begins minus Pro Bowl special teamer Lorenzo Alexander, who signed with Arizona.
“I don’t really look at it like I’m following Danny, who’s one of those guys for whom I have the ultimate respect,” said the bespectacled Burns, who was barely noticeable during organized team activities and minicamp this spring. “He was always inviting me to come over here and talk when I was home during the offseasons. My approach will probably be a little bit different than Danny’s, a different voice, but it’s all about getting the guys to believe in what you’re teaching.”
While it’s easy to assume that Burns is totally tied to Redskins coach Mike Shanahan for whom he worked for 10 years, that’s not exactly true. Burns was chosen by Denver in the seventh round of the 1994 draft, the year before Shanahan’s arrival. The special teams captain also left Denver for a year twice during Shanahan’s tenure, signing with Chicago in 1999 and Tampa Bay in 2003 before returning each time.
Shanahan did make Burns his assistant special teams coach upon the latter’s retirement in 2007. However, Burns remained in that role under Shanahan’s successors Josh McDaniels, Eric Studesville and John Fox.
“Special teams is what I did when I was playing in this league under five [special teams] coaches and it’s what I’ve coached for three [special teams] coordinators,” said Burns, who started just three games during his 13 seasons. “I know the right way to do things.”
But despite having played and coached for 17 of the past 19 years in Denver, becoming his own boss and with his hometown team, “was a no-brainer.”
Especially because joining the Redskins reunited Burns with his family. Eldest daughter Danielle moved in with her grandparents as she began her basketball career at Stonewall Jackson High and was joined by her mother and younger sister and brother the past two years. Burns flew home virtually every weekend during the offseason to be with them.
“That was one of the sacrifices I had to make, but it worked out for the best,” he said.
And while Shanahan didn’t want Smith to leave, hiring Burns to replace him was also a no-brainer despite the ongoing presence of Smith’s special teams assistant, Richard Hightower.
“When Keith was with me, he was just like Lorenzo,” Shanahan said. “He was a great special teams player. He led by example; first guy there, last guy to leave. He’ll do the same thing as a coach.”
Burns is also creative enough to have attached mini-cameras to the helmets of kicker Kai Forbath, punter Sav Rocca and snapper Nick Sundberg this spring in order to provide them with up close and personal video of their strokes.
“We look at it as our fifth man,” said Burns, who received his first such camera as a Christmas present from former snapper Lonie Paxton. “It allows those guys to hone in on what they do during film study.”
While Alexander was emblematic of Smith’s usually excellent coverage teams, Washington’s kicking game and return units were rarely top-notch. In contrast, Broncos kicker Matt Prater and punter Britton Colquitt have been superb and Denver’s 10 return touchdowns during Burns’ six seasons ranked second in the NFL.
“When I interviewed Keith, he blew me away … with how organized he was,” Shanahan said. “He has a very solid scheme. He’s got a lot of passion for what he does. He’s coached all different areas on special teams and he teaches that to you. He presents it the way he’s going to present it to the players. And then you’ve got to get players to play hard. You’ve got to motivate people.”
So far, so good on that front.
Reed Doughty, who played seven seasons for Smith and could inherit the special teams captaincy from Alexander, has been impressed with his new boss.
“I loved playing for Danny, but change can be good,” Doughty said. “[Keith] hit the ground running. Any transition is difficult, but you’ve got to respect a guy who played as long and well as he did and has been an assistant in the league.”
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 three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin