By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 18, 2008
Early during practice yesterday at Redskins Park, Vinny Cerrato, Washington's executive vice president of football operations, left the seat he usually occupies to watch team drills and focused on the Redskins' biggest concern. As struggling rookie punter Durant Brooks worked individually on a side field with special teams coach Danny Smith, Cerrato closely monitored the session, often standing a few yards from the player he drafted.
After a poor performance in Sunday's 29-24 victory over the New Orleans Saints, Brooks is attempting to regain his confidence and retain his job. Brooks averaged 33 yards on his only two punts, and Reggie Bush returned his ineffective second punt 55 yards for a touchdown.
Apparently, Brooks must work quickly. If he fails to show significant improvement this week against the Arizona Cardinals at FedEx Field, Brooks said, the Redskins probably would bring in punters to challenge for the job. Brooks became the starter less than three weeks ago after competing with veteran Derrick Frost in training camp and the preseason.
Shaken by a bad experience in only his second game, Brooks said he still believes he has the mettle to make it in the NFL. The Redskins also plan to provide more help for veteran punt returner Antwaan Randle El, who is off to a slow start, but Brooks is under the most scrutiny as the Redskins strive for better special teams play.
"Wednesdays don't [mean] a damn to me. I need to see something on Sunday," Smith said. "We're working at it. He's a young kid and, really, it's very, very difficult. He has not punted the ball well. There's a lot of bad punting going on in the league, and we happen to be in the middle of [it], which I don't like, and nobody likes. We're going to weather the storm and hope he comes out of it quick."
From the outset of practice yesterday, Smith directed Brooks in a lengthy workout, simulating scenarios Brooks could encounter during games. As Smith held a stopwatch and provided instruction, Brooks received snaps from Pro Bowl long snapper Ethan Albright and punted as he normally would in most situations, from his end zone and directionally. Place kicker Shaun Suisham stood at the opposite end of the field and shouted out the yard lines where balls landed.
"We've put him in some tough situations," Smith said. "God knows I'm hard on him. I'm not easy on him. I'm real hard on him, but he's got to punt well on Sundays."
Brooks also worked on his holds after botching one on a short field goal try against the Saints that contributed to a miss by Suisham. Brooks caught balls Albright fed through a machine at different angles, and while he mishandled one snap, he said he was pleased overall with his effort.
"I can do it," Brooks said. "I have the ability. There were a lot of little things that went wrong in that game. There were things that I can fix, things that I know I have to fix, because that can't ever happen again."
Smith agrees. He has been supportive of Brooks since Cerrato made the unusual move of drafting a punter, selecting Brooks from Georgia Tech in the sixth round with the 168th overall pick. Brooks won the Ray Guy Award as college football's top punter in the 2007 season.
Brooks had a 42.8-yard average on 13 punts -- of which five were downed inside the 20 -- in the preseason. Through the Redskins' first two regular season games, however, Brooks has a 36.8-yard average, and a net of 28.3 yards, on nine punts.
"He's got to execute under pressure," Smith said. "He's got to execute under pressure to prove that he belongs in this league. We, I thought, had the same pressure in the preseason, but, obviously, that hasn't been true. He's got to get it going. He's got to get it going quick. We don't have a timeline or [have said], 'Hey, it's got to be this punt, or it's got to be this next play.' But we need to see improvement."
Washington also would prefer to be more productive on punt returns. Randle El -- the team's No. 2 wide receiver -- is averaging 4.2 yards on five returns. He has no gains of more than 10 yards, and his fumble last week set up the Saints' first touchdown.
Twice in his first four seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Randle El averaged more than 10 yards on returns. The seven-year veteran had an 8.8-yard average during his first season with the Redskins in 2006 and finished at 6.1 yards last season, but "that was because I had nagging injuries," Randle El said of his drop in production. "I did pretty good my first year, I was pretty decent, but then last year I had the knee and the hamstring. I had to sit out my first game. That's the first time I had to sit out anything."
In an effort to help Randle El, the Redskins plan to use top wide receiver Santana Moss on some punt returns. Moss led the AFC with a 16.5-yard average on punt returns in the 2002 season and has a career average of 11.5 yards. He last filled the role for the Redskins in the 2005 season, averaging 5.7 yards on seven returns.
But having Moss involved in the return game is risky because of his importance to the offense, "and you really don't want to take chances with two guys as important as Santana and El," kickoff return specialist Rock Cartwright said. "Losing one of those guys would be tough enough. But losing two, man, that would be devastating."
Moss is willing to contribute again on punt returns "if that's what they need me to do," he said. Smith and Coach Jim Zorn gladly accepted his offer.
"When you have just a pure punt returner, yeah, that's his job like your kick returner," Smith said. "When you've got a guy that's playing every other snap, there are times that you need to adjust. Say we get into a situation in a game and El's been running at a lot of deep balls or El's been catching a lot of crossing routes and Santana really hasn't done [much]. We should use him. If it's the opposite then you use the other guy. Those guys are full-time players, and you've got to try to adjust to their loads as it goes."
Staff writer Jason La Canfora contributed to this report.