Washington Redskins may have answers to key special teams questions

January 25, 2013

The 2012 season represented a breakthrough for the Washington Redskins, who returned to the playoffs for the first time in five years, enjoyed their first 10-win season in seven years and also won their division for the first time in 13 seasons.

Much of the success centered around the infusion of life that quarterback Robert Griffin III breathed into the team. A long-stagnant attack morphed into one of the league’s most potent. After nine weeks of struggles caused largely by injuries to key players, the defense pulled off a turnaround and helped Washington to a seven-game win streak.

The breakthrough theme carried over to special teams as well.

After years of inconsistencies in the kicking game, the Redskins finally found stability with the signing of first-year kicker Kai Forbath six weeks into the season.

After seeing return man Brandon Banks struggle with consistency and decision-making, the Redskins found consistency in the duo of Niles Paul and Richard Crawford.

And after five years of getting passed over despite his play-making ability on his team’s coverage units, special teams captain Lorenzo Alexander earned his first Pro Bowl invitation after leading the NFL in special teams tackles. Alexander’s honor stood out as the biggest highlight of the unit’s campaign and served as a reward for the perseverance of a player who joined the Redskins’ practice squad in 2006.

“When you look at him, he makes plays every week,” special teams coach Danny Smith said. “He gets double- and triple-teamed at times. He has more big, solid hits than anybody. It’s really quite deserving and it’s something that he’s worked his butt off to achieve.”

The 2012 season didn’t start off in such a positive fashion for Washington’s special teams.

After a training camp competition between holdover Graham Gano and Neil Rackers for place kicking duties, the Redskins wound up releasing both and signing former Baltimore Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff.

Redskins officials hoped the strong-legged Cundiff would bring the long sought-after stability after one of the most embarrassing seasons for Washington kickers in recent history, during which

Gano missed five field goal attempts, and another five, plus a point-after, were blocked. But Cundiff failed to deliver, missing five field goals in the first five games.

Forbath, a first-year player out of work after spending the preseason with Tampa Bay, won a competition with veterans Olindo Mare and Josh Brown, and rewarded the Redskins by making 17 consecutive kicks, an NFL record for first-year kickers.

“It was such an amazing time being with this group of guys. I couldn’t have asked for a better team to be on,” Forbath said at the season’s end. “I mean, what a first-year opportunity I got to be on this team, to go to the playoffs. That’s just something that a lot of guys don’t get a chance to do. So it’s definitely a year I’ll never forget here.”

Forbath was less effective on kickoffs, a duty he was handling for the first time since high school. The kicker struggled to consistently get the ball past the 5-yard line, and recorded just 15 touchbacks in 60 attempts.

Washington found greater consistency in the kick and punt return departments with four games left in the season. After Banks struggled mightily (he averaged a league-worst 6.8 yards per punt return), Smith and Shanahan went with Paul on kickoffs and Crawford on punt returns.

Paul and Crawford gave Washington more decisive runners in the returns game. Crawford’s brightest moment came in overtime of the Week 14 game against Baltimore, when he returned a punt 64 yards to set up Forbath’s winning field goal.

In their late-season audition, Crawford averaged 19.5 yards per punt return, and Paul 21.8 yards on kick returns with a long of 48.

With Forbath, Crawford and Paul all under contract for next season, the Redskins might have some key questions answered on special teams. Alexander, however, will be a free agent and is expected that he will be a priority re-signing.

“I want to be here,” Alexander said when the season concluded. “I’ve been here all my career for the most part, and I love this community, and the organization has always supported me, so we’ll see what happens here in the future.”

Mike Jones covers the Washington Redskins for The Washington Post. When not writing about a Redskins development of some kind – which is rare – he can be found screaming and cheering at one of his kids’ softball, baseball, soccer or basketball games.
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