Redskins searching for kick, punt returners

By Paul Tenorio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 9, 2010; 12:32 AM

They've come in different forms throughout NFL history: players with the ability to shift the momentum of a game when they catch a kick in the open field.

Standouts such as Brian Mitchell, Desmond Howard, Devin Hester and Josh Cribbs have proved that a quality return game can be just as valuable as nearly any other facet in football.

It's a skill, however, that has been largely absent in Washington since Mitchell last put on a Redskins jersey in 1999. In recent seasons the problem has become even more glaring.

This summer the Redskins appear intent on finding a solution. Nine players in training camp are fighting for two jobs - kick and punt returner - and the candidates encompass a wide spectrum of potential that coaches believe will breed success.

Redskins special teams coordinator Danny Smith is hoping to identify a player out of a diverse group that includes wide receivers Bobby Wade, Mike Furrey, Devin Thomas, Anthony Armstrong, Terrence Austin, Brandon Banks, cornerbacks Phillip Buchanon and Justin Tryon and running back Ryan Torain.

"We do have a variety of styles, we've got a variety of sizes, we've got a variety of speeds and we've got a variety of visions," Smith said. "The positive note ... is we have more candidates than we've ever had and that's a great quality. We've got candidates and it's our job to find one."

Finding right skill set

Like any other position, a returner requires the typical measurables and necessary skills: speed, vision, good hands and a quick first step.

"I want a guy that's sure-handed so we don't have to worry about catching the ball," Smith said. "I want a guy with a quick first step, I want a guy with toughness, I want a guy with good vision, I want a guy with good balance, I want a guy that can make somebody miss, I want a guy that can take it the distance."

Returners must rely on vision to navigate space that closes down quickly, and a quick first step is key to allowing a player the space to do so, Smith said. Speed obviously is one of the most important skills, but players say it's the ability to make people miss that is most valuable as a returner.

"Anybody who's running those punts back and kickoffs back, they got to be very elusive," said Redskins wide receiver Santana Moss, who has averaged 11.3 yards per punt return in his career. "You've got a lot of guys coming down that's unblocked. . . . Our goal is always 10 yards, make the first guy miss and get 10 yards. But there's guys that got that gift to just see beyond that and make more out of it."

To those who have done it and those who have coached it, identifying a successful returner often requires two things you can't test in practice.

Toughness is necessary for a position in which returners must face 11 opposing players running full speed downfield with the intent to hit them, players said. The other, according to Mitchell, is "the one muscle they don't test at combine: that's heart."

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