Reporting David Elfin
Keith Burns is the only new man in command at Redskins Park this year, but the first-year special teams is hardly starting from scratch. And that’s not just because he played or worked for Washington coach Mike Shanahan in Denver for a dozen seasons.
Rather, as is generally the case with the Redskins’ offense and defense, too, most of the critical performers from predecessor Danny Smith’s special teams are back.
While Washington is giving kickoff specialist John Potter a summer look-see, kicker Kai Forbath, who converted 17 of 18 field goal attempts during his debut in 2012, is set in his job as is 39-year-old punter Sav Rocca and solid snapper Nick Sundberg. Given the Redskins’ nine punters, eight kickers and three long snappers during Smith’s nine-year tenure, that’s rare stability in the kicking game.
Forbath, who beat out veterans Olindo Mare and Josh Brown to replace off-target veteran Billy Cundiff during a Week 6 audition, set an NFL record for a neophyte pro by hitting his first 17 field goal attempts, 12 of them from beyond 42 yards.
Rocca fought through a knee injury — which he had repaired over the winter — during the final six games (after being hampered by an ankle problem in December 2011) to average a career high 43.9 per punt.
Sundberg gutted it out in the opener after breaking his left forearm before halftime. Washington was 8-0 with him in the lineup until the divisional round loss to Seattle.
What’s more, seven of the Redskins’ top 10 special teams tacklers are back. However, there is one glaring absence. Lorenzo Alexander, the special teams captain who led the NFL in special teams tackles and was the NFC’s Pro Bowl special teams player last season, signed with Arizona as a free agent in March.
Seven-year veteran Reed Doughty, who was Washington’s second-leading special teams tackler with 22 stops in 2012, is the most obvious choice to replace Alexander as the units’ captain and top performer.
Veteran backup inside linebacker Bryan Kehl, who was credited with eight special teams tackles in just five games after being re-signed by the Redskins last Nov. 28, could also pick up some of the void opened by Alexander’s departure. Third-string tight end Niles Paul, who was credited with 16 special teams tackles in just his second season in 2012, is another leading candidate.
Backup safeties DeJon Gomes and Jordan Pugh, reserve inside linebacker Keenan Robinson and starting cornerback DeAngelo Hall are the other returning players from among Washington’s top special teams tacklers.
While Smith’s coverage units were usually among the NFL’s best, his return teams were very average. Washington employed 25 return men over those past nine seasons and it’s far from certain who will be bringing back punts and kickoffs for Burns in 2013.
After replacing the disappointing and since-departed Brandon Banks in December, Paul (an underwhelming 21.8 yard average on 13 kickoff returns including a 48-yarder in the finale) and 2012 rookie cornerback Richard Crawford (a superb 19.5 yard average on eight punt returns thanks to a 64-yard play in the overtime upset of eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore) are the incumbents.
Evan Royster, who averaged just 19.5 yards on two kickoff returns last year, could compete with Paul this summer along with fellow reserve running back Chris Thompson, a fifth-round draft pick who had some success returning kicks early in his career at Florida State.
Crawford’s only apparent rivals are: Thompson, who returned all of one punt in college; Hall, who returned just four kicks and punts the past five seasons, 34-year-old backup receiver Santana Moss, who didn’t return any the past three years and who hasn’t done so regularly since 2004; and newly-signed 31-year-old wideout Devery Henderson, who returned only 10 kicks during his nine seasons in New Orleans.
The good news for the Redskins on this front is that the Broncos’ 10 return touchdowns during Burns’ six seasons as a special teams assistant ranked second in the NFL.
“Special teams is what I did when I was playing in this league,” said Burns, who started just three games during his 13 seasons. “I know the right way to do things.”
Starting Thursday, he gets his first true chance to prove it.
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