By Paul Tenorio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 7, 2009
During an offseason in which the Washington Redskins again spent millions of dollars in free agency, the acquisition of punter Hunter Smith is, at first glance, merely a footnote.
Smith's contract was, of course, well short of the $100 million and $55 million deals handed out, respectively, to headliners Albert Haynesworth and DeAngelo Hall. His signing didn't warrant a news conference or receive even the same amount of attention as the lower-profile acquisitions of guard Derrick Dockery or supplemental draft pick Jeremy Jarmon.
Of course, who would expect it to? Picking up an 11th-year punter isn't exactly a sexy move.
But Smith's presence at training camp this season solidifies an area in which the Redskins have struggled for a decade. Not since the departure of punter Matt Turk in 2000 has Washington enjoyed the luxury of a consistent and dependable punter. And as a result, the Redskins often have found themselves losing the all-important battle for field position.
Last year, Washington went through three punters, including sixth-round draft pick Durant Brooks, and still finished dead last in the NFL with a net average of 33.4 yards per punt.
So in the eyes of those within the organization, signing "Hunter the Punter" wasn't quite so low profile.
"For us, it's huge," Coach Jim Zorn said. "But also when you talk free agent acquisitions, that was as good an acquisition, potentially, as Albert Haynesworth or DeAngelo Hall because it directly impacts field position. We are going to have to punt this year, and when we punt it's just going to be a tremendous asset to us with our punting and our punt coverage."
Smith has been the epitome of consistency. In 10 years with the Colts, he averaged 43.4 yards per punt with a net of 35.5. Seven times in his career he ranked in the top 10 in the league in punting average, and last season Smith pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line 23 times while allowing just two touchbacks.
By comparison, Redskins punters -- Brooks and Ryan Plackemeier -- combined for 24 punts inside the 20-yard line with 10 touchbacks.
"Obviously when you get the ball on the 40 or 50 going in, it's a huge confidence boost. You feel like you should score, and I think that can help us a ton," tight end Chris Cooley said. "It's hard to start from the 15- or 20-yard line, and you just know the work that's involved in that type of a drive. It's really nice to get the ball on the 50."
The Redskins' struggle to find a punter in the last decade has seen a plethora of tryouts and nine punters employed in what has become a revolving door of mediocrity.
Since Turk, a Pro Bowl pick, finished second in the NFL with a net average of 38.9 yards in 1998, the Redskins have not finished in the top half of the league in that category, ranking no higher than 18th.
Punters in Washington since Turk was traded to the Miami Dolphins in 2000 include Tommy Barnhardt, Bryan Barker, Craig Jarrett, Andy Groom, Tom Tupa and Derrick Frost, last year's incumbent who was cut during the 2008 preseason.
But despite the obvious struggles at the position within the organization, Smith said he wanted to avoid looking too much into the past.
"Being in the fraternity of kickers and punters, you look around the league and see when things are going well or not so well for teams, and this is one of those teams I know has had some transition over the years," Smith said. "But really, everyone kind of brings up the past and I try to just move on to what's next. And we're not a team that's in transition anymore."
With Smith aboard, coaches are confident they will be able to control field position more and turn it into their favor at critical moments.
Smith's ability to pin teams would force opponents to drive the length of the field on a top-five defense that added potentially game-changing players in Haynesworth and first-round pick Brian Orakpo.
And if teams are unable to move the ball on the defense, the Redskins' offense would have a shorter field when it gets the ball back.
Smith's ability to punt directionally with accuracy and consistency is one of the major upgrades over last year, when coaches said they stopped calling for directional punts because they couldn't be sure the kicks would be executed.
"Hunter is a punter, and it's been a long time since we had one of those," special teams coach Danny Smith said last week. "He's a punter, he's a pro, he's good. And wherever we say a ball is going to be there's a pretty good chance it's going to be there this year."
Danny Smith also praised the stability his new punter brings to another area of special teams: holding.
The kicking game struggled last year, and Danny Smith said the change in holders played a role. With Hunter Smith in place, Danny Smith said he hoped that problem also would be solved.
Joking with the media after a special teams practice last week, Danny Smith claimed Hunter Smith could go down as the best holder in league history because he held for the NFL's most accurate kicker ever, Mike Vanderjagt, as well as its most clutch kicker, Adam Vinatieri.
"That's not my opinion," Hunter Smith said, chuckling. "I think statistically speaking you could make an argument for that."
But while his holding prowess remains up for debate, the impact he could have on the Redskins is not.
"We have a good defense, we're going to have a really solid offense, and if we can give our defense a position on the field where they can make stops and back people down in their own territory, then we're going to be able to get our offense on the field and get points," Hunter Smith said. "And if you do that you win games. So I'm not saying that I'd be a reason for winning games, but I certainly hope I would be an important factor."