By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 22, 2008
When he holds the ball somewhere near midfield, his leg about to swing through, sending a football hurtling downfield, Redskins punter Ryan Plackemeier usually finds a target -- the 8-yard line.
For the 8-yard line holds an infinite array of possibilities. Most punt returners are coached to stand on the 10-yard line and let go any balls that sail over their heads, figuring they will roll into the end zone. To Plackemeier, the 8 is close enough to the 10 to force the returner to make a choice -- catch or let go? And if the returner lets the ball pass, a punt that hits the 8 still stands a chance of being downed by defenders before it wobbles to the goal line.
A punter who can hit the 8-yard line consistently is a punter who will have a long career in the NFL.
And in this season, where everything has suddenly gone wrong for the Redskins, players regressing all over the field, it is their punter who has quietly improved, the one who might just have had the most to do with Washington beating the Philadelphia Eagles yesterday afternoon.
Plackemeier punted eight times yesterday. Five times he came so close to hitting the 8-yard line that DeSean Jackson, the Eagles' star punt returner, did nothing with the balls that spiraled down to him. The Eagles returned just one of the eight punts, and started drives at the 4, 9, 3, 10 and 9.
"Field position was a huge factor, as was their punter," Philadelphia Coach Andy Reid said.
On a Redskins team where too many high-profile trades and signings have not worked out and many of the players' futures are in doubt, the punter might be among the safest. Plackemeier never felt any pressure as he kicked yesterday. The Eagles charged at him; a couple of times one of their players even got close. But Plackemeier never noticed them. This is a rare place for a punter to be. After all, their jobs are often a week-to-week existence. He learned that this summer after two seasons with the Seattle Seahawks. An injury kept him from punting in all but Seattle's final exhibition game and thus when the season began against Buffalo he was rusty, out of sync. So was Seattle's offense, which left Plackemeier to punt 11 times that game. It didn't go well. A day later, he was released.
For a month nobody called. And yet he was convinced he was an NFL punter. The Seahawks had just moved to a new practice facility but their old one a few miles away was left empty. He stayed in Seattle and drove to the old facility every day, punting for hours on the abandoned practice fields. He was sure someone would call.
When the Redskins and Coach Jim Zorn, who had been the quarterback coach in Seattle while Plackemeier was there, phoned in October, he was ready. For a few weeks he tried to boom the ball as high and as far as he could, producing more touchbacks than he intended. Washington's special teams coach Danny Smith told him to worry less about kicking the ball far and concentrate instead on dropping the ball inside the 10-yard line. Plackemeier tried.
A few years ago in Seattle, a Seahawks special teams coach, Bob Cosullo, taught Plackemeier the Australian rules football style of punting that he gave years before to Raiders punter Shane Lechler, widely considered one of the best in the league. The kick, which involves holding the ball sideways, rather than lengthwise, allows the ball to deaden as it hits the ground, giving it a greater chance of stopping before it rolls into the end zone.
"For me, it's easier to get to drop," Plackemeier said.
Which is all the Redskins want from their punter.
Someone who can deaden the ball inside the 10-yard line. Push the other team back. And make the long march down field seem impossible.
Which is exactly what happened yesterday.