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."
"Do they have heart or not?" Mitchell continued. "When you get hit or knocked on your back and you're seeing stars, the next time you catch the ball, do you fall down or do you run at that guy, shake him and go for a touchdown?"
While that natural instinct is necessary, Mitchell believes returning is something that can be improved and perfected through practice and repetition.
Mitchell had never fielded a kick or punt before entering the NFL. Throughout high school and college he had played quarterback and it was only after arriving in Washington that he was told he would be tried out as a returner.
In his first season, Mitchell muffed several punts and kicks, he said. He was so uncomfortable catching punts that he often let the ball bounce before snagging it.
Mitchell said he learned how to judge kicks by watching the nose of the ball and that film study allowed him to tell where punters were going to kick the ball before they kicked it, giving him a chance for a bigger return.
He retired as statistically one of the greatest ever at the position, holding the NFL's all-time records for most punt returns in a career (463), most punt return yards gained in a career (4,999), most kickoff returns in a career (607), most kickoff return yards gained in a career (14,014) and most combined return touchdowns in a career (13).
"Things that make returners what they are, the special part, basically the instincts, those things are natural," Mitchell said. "But you can become a better decision maker. That can be taught to you."Establishing return game
Whatever it is that makes a standout returner, the Redskins have struggled to find dependable players with those qualities.
Rock Cartwright established himself as a consistent kick returner, but he did not provide the threat of a big-play returner in the mold of Hester or Cribbs. Cartwright averaged 24.5 yards per return over the past four seasons but reached the end zone just once - a 100 yard return in 2006, the only return touchdown in his eight-year career.
Wide receiver Antwaan Randle El was signed after winning a Super Bowl with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2006 with the expectation that he would solve the Redskins' punt returning woes. Instead, Randle El struggled to replicate his previous production and in the past three seasons averaged just 6.2 yards per return - far below the 10.2 he averaged in 2005 with Pittsburgh. Last season, the Redskins ranked 30th in the league in punt return average.
The Redskins have several options to replace Cartwright (who's now with Oakland) and Randle El (who's back with the Steelers).
Buchanon may be the early front-runner for the punt-returning job, and Thomas will likely get the first shot as kick returner.
Rookies Austin and Banks will get an opportunity to make the roster as returners. Moss and cornerback DeAngelo Hall could be used in spot situations when a big play is needed.
While they have all taken reps during practice, Banks said it's impossible to tell who the leaders are until the preseason games begin. Smith said the team faces a challenge in making sure every candidate gets an opportunity in the preseason, but that the team will formulate a plan that gives it the best chance of solving the return game struggles.
"There's somebody there that's going to be good at it," Smith said. ". . . There's different qualities in each of them and it's our job to find one. And I think with the people that we have here we will."