Nearly every time Brandon Banks has taken in a kick, headed upfield and, eventually, been tackled, he has bounced back up off the ground and pounded the ball in frustration. Each time, the message seems the same: If not for that one man, that last man to beat, that would have been the one he broke, the one that went the distance.
“He can’t do it alone,” special teams coach Danny Smith said. “That’s for sure.”
A year ago, Banks was all but alone as a playmaker for the Washington Redskins, and his returns of kicks and punts were the one reason to stop and pay attention. This season has been different. Banks’s longest punt returns of the year came last week against Dallas, an encouraging sign, but he has generally fit into a special teams mix that has been outstanding in some regards (punting, punt coverage and kickoff coverage) and middling to poor in other phases (punt and kickoff returns and place kicking).
“It’s frustrating, because I think every time I can bring one back,” Banks said. “I just got to be patient and keep trying.”
Banks’s struggles have been a focus for fans during the Redskins’ current six-game losing streak. He is joined on special teams by place kicker Graham Gano, who has missed more field goal attempts (eight) than any kicker in the league. Only one regular kicker has made a lower percentage than Gano’s .667, and Gano is coming off a week in which he missed one 49-yarder and a 52-yarder in overtime — either of which could have beaten Dallas.
Asked whether Gano is under more pressure than other players to keep his job in Sunday’s game at Seattle, Coach Mike Shanahan said simply: “Yes.”
“I ain’t talking about Graham,” Smith said. “We’re done with that.”
Smith would rather talk about the contributions his units are making, and there are several. The Redskins rank first in the NFL in kickoff coverage, allowing an average of just 19.1 yards per return; they’re one of just three teams who force opponents to start the average drive inside their 20-yard line.
“We’ve been good on that every year I’ve been here,” special teams captain Lorenzo Alexander said.
“We’ll always be good there,” Smith said.
The change has come on the punting unit, where Sav Rocca — a free agent signed away from Philadelphia — has turned a position that has traditionally turned over from year to year into a consistent force. From 2000 to 2010, the Redskins used 11 punters. Rocca — who’s “as good as I’ve ever been around,” Shanahan said — has provided stability.
“His bad punts are what we used to consider good punts here,” Smith said.
Rocca hasn’t necessarily boomed his kicks — his average of 45.5 yards ranks just 18th in the league — but he is exceptional at knowing situations and tailoring his punts to them. He has placed 20 of his 44 punts inside the 20-yard line, the second-highest total in the league. And because he’s able to get consistently good hang time, usually 4.8 or 4.9 seconds, the Redskins’ punt coverage unit can get downfield and pin back returners. The unit’s net average of 41.3 yards ranks fourth in the league.
“If I can cut down the return by the hang, and we got guys flying down there, we should do well,” Rocca said. “They’re the other part of the equation that a lot of people don’t look at, but they’re doing a great job.”
The Redskins’ approach to punt coverage — higher, shorter kicks that don’t allow good return opportunities — is working against them in regards to Banks. His 55-yard punt return last week against Dallas was the longest of his career, and he added a 32-yarder in the same game. But prior to that, he was averaging just nine yards a return — down 2.3 yards from his performance a year ago. Perhaps forcing things a bit, he had started fumbling kicks.
“I think any athlete wants to get out there and show what he can do,” Smith said. “We haven’t had really an issue with him dropping any balls, but he dropped a couple of balls the last couple of weeks. . . . I think he did press.”
Those problems were exacerbated because opponents are aware of Banks’s capabilities. Last year, he returned one kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown and had two other returns called back because of penalty. An undrafted wide receiver out of Kansas State, he became Washington’s most exciting player. The surprise element, now, is gone.
“They’ll game plan you better,” Alexander said. “Guys have come up and said, ‘We don’t even care about the distance. We’re going to kick it higher and then make him fair catch it.’ Or when he catches it, he doesn’t have time, because of the good hang time, but it might be a 37- or 38-yard punt. But they’d rather take that than him getting a 20-yard return. They’ll kick it away from him. . . .
“Then you start pressing. ‘I need to make something happen,’ because people are talking. ‘He ain’t doing nothing.’ ”
Given the Redskins’ fragile nature — a sputtering offense and a defense that finds itself under inordinate pressure to offset that — doing nothing isn’t going to work.
“We have to get better,” Alexander said. “We have to keep working to spring Brandon, because once he gets in space, he’s one of the best returners in the league.”