By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 22, 2008
Durant Brooks's third NFL game was summed up by two conversations held just after the Washington Redskins completed their 24-17 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
There was a handshake and strong words of encouragement from Cardinals special teams coach Kevin Spencer, who repeatedly told the rookie punter to "keep up the good work" after the best outing of his brief and thus-far shaky career. And there was a moment with fellow rookie Malcolm Kelly, who asked what many fans must also have wondered: Just what had Brooks done to provoke one of the first public displays of fury from new head coach Jim Zorn?
The answer wasn't particularly dramatic. As place kicker Shaun Suisham lined up for a 52-yard field goal attempt late in the fourth quarter, an attempt that could have iced the game, Brooks looked toward the line of scrimmage and saw his teammates in place. He glanced back at Suisham, got the okay sign, turned and asked for the snap.
One problem: long snapper Ethan Albright didn't have the football yet.
"Mr. Official was standing over the ball, and [Brooks] asked for the ball," Zorn explained. "And, you know, I was thinking to myself, 'Why are you asking for the ball?' "
The mix-up caused a brief delay. Suisham then missed the try wide left.
"It was like we iced our own kicker," Zorn said. "So I was pretty bent out of shape."
Which was obvious when Brooks came off the field. As television cameras rolled, Zorn played the role of a frustrated parent, beating his head into the wall. Brooks played the role of the child.
"I was shell-shocked a little bit," Brooks said. "I thought he was going to throw his headphones on me. He scared me. He matured me, how about that."
Zorn worried that Brooks's attention had waned during such a critical moment, a concern made more urgent after the rookie mishandled a field goal snap last weekend. But Brooks said his NFL career will survive or wither on the performance of his leg, and in that regard yesterday marked a significant step forward.
He booted 45- and 56-yard punts in the second quarter, the latter of which pinned Arizona inside its 10-yard line. He helped give the Cardinals an average starting field position at their 23-yard line, 11 yards worse than Washington's mark. And he greeted success like a wide receiver in the end zone, celebrating on the field after the 56-yarder, the longest of his NFL career.
"That was awesome. I don't know if you saw me on the field but I was popping blood vessels I was so excited," he said. "As soon as [returner Steve Breaston] was tackled and the ref blew that whistle, I just got down and just flexed every muscle I have in my body. I hope it's not on film somewhere. I'll get laughed at, I'm sure."
The moment was as much relief as joy, after Washington entered the week last in the NFL in both punting average and net average. The sixth-round draft pick said he worried less about the botched hold than his sub-par punting, saying it was hard to enjoy last week's win after his own "awful" showing.
"You start thinking too much," he said. "It was hard to stop thinking about what could have been. I only had two punts, and they were two bad punts. It stayed with me a little while."
Teammates tried to intervene. Todd Yoder repeatedly told the rookie from Georgia Tech to stop thinking and just do whatever had earned him the Ray Guy Award as college football's best punter last year.
"I think so many people were down on him and he was down on himself," Yoder said. "You can tell when a guy is just thinking, he's thinking about [his] job, thinking all these things. I just told him, 'Man, just simplify. You were born to punt, just punt. Do what you're supposed to do.' "
Special teams coach Danny Smith, meantime, has told Brooks he'll need to chop away at his lowly rankings gradually; "we got our first little chop," the coach told Brooks after yesterday's win. And the punter agreed this was only a small step. Two of his punts were fair caught, but both were shorter than he would have liked. His head coach publicly screamed at him, although Zorn later found Brooks in the locker room to make sure he was all right.
Still, Brooks's net average rose by more than four yards to 32.5, and he could at least smile when asked whether he felt more secure.
"Secure? You never feel secure up here," he said. "I feel a lot better, how about that."