By Paul Tenorio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 3, 2009
On the far end of the field during the Washington Redskins' first special teams practice on Saturday afternoon, a group of players rotated fielding punts under the watchful eye of special teams coach Danny Smith.
Conspicuously missing from the group, however, was the one man the Redskins expect to be back there when the regular season starts Sept. 13 at Giants Stadium: wide receiver Antwaan Randle El.
Though Randle El enters the season as the starter and will handle the bulk of the returns, his lack of production since leaving the Pittsburgh Steelers and coming to Washington as a free agent in 2006 has opened the possibility that a new face could unseat him as the full-time returner.
Smith at least acknowledged that while remaining faithful to Randle El, who came to the Redskins with a reputation of being one of the NFL's most dangerous punt returners, he may not be the only one returning punts.
"El is going to be the guy, but I think you'll see a little more by committee," Smith said. "So who that committee is going to be, let's see how the roster comes out with guys like Dominique Dorsey, with guys like [Anthony] Alridge. . . . There [are] a lot of guys in the mix. Again, my job is going to be in the preseason to see if one of those guys is capable of doing that."
While Smith stopped short of criticizing Randle El, there is no doubt about the lack of production in an area so critical to field position.
Randle El called for a fair catch on 21 of the 60 punts he fielded last season, tops in the NFL, and averaged just 6.5 yards per return -- ranking 21st of 26 players with at least 20 returns. Randle El also often left more yards on the field to be gained, and coverage was not necessarily the problem, he admitted.
"It's not a whole problem with coverage," said Randle El, who is entering his eighth season. "I used to make stuff happen and coverage wouldn't really be there, the blocking would not be there a whole lot. And the first two years we had really good teams and last year we were struggling a little bit more there, but for the most part I had an opportunity to get the yards we need. It's not so much the touchdowns but just the actual yards."
Randle El had averaged 9.48 yards per return in his first four seasons when he came to Washington after winning a Super Bowl with the Steelers. But after netting 8.8 yards per return, including an 87-yard touchdown, in his first season with the Redskins, the numbers have declined sharply the last two seasons.
Randle El averaged just 6.1 yards per return in 2007 and last season tripled his number of fair catches from seven to 21 -- eight more than any other season in his career -- while only slightly increasing his return average to 6.5.
Now, for the first time since coming to Washington, Randle El will be pushed by several young players as well as by the threat of Santana Moss or DeAngelo Hall going in at key points.
It's a fact of which Randle El is aware, though he said coaches have not told him that he may be replaced.
"Not enough [production], just not enough," Randle El said. "I basically haven't produced like I did in the years before I got here. I had some knee injuries or whatever when I first got here, I got the one touchdown, but even the average wasn't really high. Moving the ball, putting the offense in a better position, I couldn't quite get that done. So my whole thing now is just, that's what my focus is. I've got to get that cranked up. I just can't keep letting that go down. And I don't want to be replaced, either."
The candidates to unseat Randle El vary from part-time options such as Hall and Moss to players brought in specifically for their return skills, Alridge and Dorsey.
Moss and Hall finished their college careers ranked first and second in Big East history for punt return touchdowns with six and five, respectively. But both are considered integral to the success of their respective units and likely will not be considered as full-time options. Hall said he has not been approached about any returning role, though he thinks he could be effective.
Moss returned six punts last year for an average of 20.7 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown against Detroit. But he strained a hamstring in that game, and with few other proven options at wide receiver Washington likely will use him cautiously.
"I always leave that open, I never turn that down," Moss said. "It's something that got me here so I just tell Coach, 'Hey, if you need me just throw me in there.' So we have that already taken care of and it's on us. When we out there, I look at him and if he say, 'you ready?' I go out there."
The two return specialists, Alridge and Dorsey, have made their mark mostly on kick returns. And they will have to make a strong impression in preseason to warrant a roster spot.
Yet for all of the different possibilities being considered as replacements, Randle El said he is intent on making sure nobody steals his job.
"Now it's a matter of seizing the opportunity and making those plays and getting north and south and basically getting to the end zone," said Randle El, who also faces challengers for the No. 2 wide receiver job. "And that's my whole focus now. I know I can do both, I've been through it, it's not like it's something new that I'm trying to do. So I just have to focus more and get it done.
"When you have your back against the wall, you have a little pressure, you've got to have a fire under your butt and you got to get going. And that's what I'm going to do this year."