Redskins

Redskins Need To Restore Tradition Of Special Teams Excellence

by David Elfin
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Punter Sav Rocca has been a pillar of inconsistency and one of the many issues plaguing the Washington Redskins special teams unit. (credit: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Punter Sav Rocca has been a pillar of inconsistency and one of the many issues plaguing the Washington Redskins special teams unit. (credit: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

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When George Allen took command of the Redskins in 1971, he made fellow future Hall of Famer Marv Levy one of the NFL’s first special teams coaches. Allen and Levy kept Bill Malinchak on the roster solely for his ability to block kicks.

Joe Gibbs, who succeeded Allen’s successor, Jack Pardee, in 1981, cared so much about special teams that he mentioned coverages aces Otis Wonsley, Pete Cronan and Greg Williams in his Hall of Fame induction speech in 1996.

Kicker Mark Moseley became the only special teamer to be named the NFL’s MVP in 1982. Brian Mitchell, who played his first 10 seasons in Washington, is the league’s career leader in punt return yards, kickoff return yards.

So the Redskins’ special teams have a long and successful history. But as inconsistent as Washington’s offense was in 2013 and as porous as its defense was, those units were playoff-worthy compared to its horrendous special teams.

In its first, and last, season under neophyte special teams coach Keith Burns, who took over after Danny Smith left for Pittsburgh after nine seasons, Washington was the worst in the league at covering punts and at returning kickoffs while ranking third-to-last in punting average, 28th in punts returns and tied for 24th in field goal percentage. Finishing 10th covering kickoffs didn’t come close to making up for the sins everywhere else on special teams.

Punter Sav Rocca, who turned 40 in November, is under contract but is probably done after way too many shanks the last two years. Thanks to his own weak 42.2-yard gross average and the horrendous punt coverage team, Rocca’s 33.8-yard net average was the NFL’s worst.

After 2012 Pro Bowl special-teamer Lorenzo Alexander signed with Arizona as a free agent last March, Redskins mainstay Reed Doughty said that as terrific as ‘Zo was, that the coverage units would be fine. Doughty was half right, although the kickoff team was burned by Dallas’ Dwayne Harris for a 90-yard return in Week 6, helping blunt any momentum Washington had from ending its season-opening 0-3 skid by winning the previous game at Oakland. Kansas City’s Quintin Demps also blistered the kickoff team for a 95-yard touchdown in Week 15.

As for the punt team, Harris toasted it for an 88-yard touchdown in Week 6. Chicago’s Devin Hester took a punt 81 yards to the house the next week. The Chiefs’ Dexter McCluster averaged 25.3 yards on seven returns, including a 74-yard score. Dallas’ Micheal Spurlock returned a punt 62 yards in Week 16.

In contrast, Washington players managed to return just one of 51 opponent kickoffs more than 30 yards (a 39-yard effort by Niles Paul against Kansas City). Josh Morgan returned a punt 34 yards in Week 7 at Denver. The Redskins’ next-longest punt return in 35 tries was an 18-yarder by Santana Moss in Week 16.

Kai Forbath, who had been a revelation while making 17 of 18 field goal attempts after signing as a neophyte kicker in October 2012, injured a groin in the 2013 opener and missed three games. Forbath made 18 of 22 kicks and his previously weak kickoffs went deep as the season continued and will go to training camp as the definite favorite to keep his job on a team with so many question marks.

Snapper, a spot that Ethan Albright manned from 2001-09 without missing a game, also has to be an area of concern after Nick Sundberg, an iron man in 2010-11, went down with a major injury for a second straight year. This time, it was a season-ending torn ACL in Week 6. Replacement Kyle Nelson was decent except for a rolled punt snap that helped cost the Redskins a Week 13 victory that would’ve halted their eventual eight-game losing streak at three.

Morgan and rookies Chris Thompson and Nick Williams were lousy returning punts and Moss – who might not be back as he’ll be 35 in June — wasn’t much better during the final six games. Paul, Morgan – who won’t be back — Thompson and Williams all failed at returning kickoffs. So new special teams coach Ben Kotwica has to find players who can handle these duties. Richard Crawford, who missed last season with a torn ACL but who helped beat eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore with a 64-yard overtime return in 2012, is a strong candidate on punts. The kickoff man will likely be a free agent signee or a rookie.

With Rocca having followed similarly over the hill veteran punters Hunter Smith (2009-10) and Josh Bidwell (2010) in struggling in Washington, Kotwica would be well-advised to find a younger, stronger leg to give new coach Jay Gruden one less headache.

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.

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