By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 31, 2010; 9:14 PM
DETROIT - Brandon Banks woke up at the team hotel Sunday morning and before boarding the team bus, he pecked away on his iPhone. "Gotta get in that zone today," the rookie tweeted.
He not only reached the end zone, he spent most of Sunday's game in a metaphorical zone that Redskins returners hadn't even dreamed about in quite some time.
In Sunday's 37-25 loss, Banks posted his first career kickoff return for a touchdown, and his long returns led directly to 22 of the team's 25 points. No single player had the impact Sunday that Banks did.
"He was off the charts," said Coach Mike Shanahan. "If you weren't impressed with him, then you don't enjoy football."
On the day, Banks totaled 271 return yards, setting a franchise record. But it was his 96-yard kickoff return midway through the fourth quarter that will be preserved on highlight reels. It was the Redskins' first kick return for a touchdown in 70 games, and for Banks, an undrafted rookie out of Kansas State, the first of his career.
"I been waiting all season to pop one," he said. "I've been getting close. I'm tired of everybody saying, 'almost.' "
Banks did not enter the game as a wide receiver, but had five punt returns and six kickoff returns. By the end of the game, the Lions were kicking away from him, making sure the game wasn't decided on a return.
In the second quarter, Banks returned a kickoff 46 yards to Detroit's 42-yard line. Three plays later, the Redskins scored their first touchdown of the game. His 24-yard punt return with less than 30 seconds remaining in the first half allowed the Redskins to start a drive on Detroit's 49-yard line. Three plays later, the Redskins were kicking a 46-yard field goal and taking a six-point lead into the half.
Midway through the third quarter, Banks broke free for the first time, sprinting 95 yards to the end zone. But there was a flag on the kick return and officials ruled that Reed Doughty threw an illegal block. Instead of six easy points, the Redskins eventually had to punt.
"Once everybody gets on the same page, we could do those every week," teammate Byron Westbrook said of Banks breaking free.
Early in the fourth quarter, Banks had a 35-yard punt return, again putting the Washington offense in Lions' territory to start a drive. "He's good at reading things," said special teams coordinator Danny Smith. "He's good at following his blocks. He's got a lot of confidence, and that always helps."
It took just three plays before the offense punched in a touchdown and the Redskins regained the lead, 19-14.
The Lions answered with a touchdown of their own and that's when Banks trotted onto the field for yet another return. He caught the ball on the four-yard line near the left hashmark. He came across the field and eventually found his way near the right sidelines.
"Once he gets out in the open field like that, can't nobody catch him," said special teams captain Lorenzo Alexander.
Banks weaved his small frame in and out of seams. "I don't remember seeing nobody," he said. "I just remember seeing the end zone and trying to get there before somebody tackled me."
There was, in fact, one player in his way: kicker Jason Hanson. Banks, who is listed at 5-foot-7 and weighs 150 pounds, had too much momentum to go around Hanson. So instead, he went through him.
"I was kind of upset that he caught me on the punt," Banks said of an earlier return.
Despite Sunday's loss, Banks earned rave reviews in the post-game locker room. Alexander compared Banks with Philadelphia's talented returner, DeSean Jackson. "He's phenomenal. He's a Pro Bowl-caliber player," he said.
Banks' one flaw surfaced in the third quarter. He fielded a punt on the Redskins' 32-yard line and muffed the catch. He quickly recovered it for a four-yard loss. The Redskins went three-and-out on the ensuing possession.
Banks struggled at times in the preseason handling the ball, but coaches have no doubts that with his speed and athleticism, the rewards are worth any risks.
"It's not a concern at all to me," Smith said.
Banks's emergence on special teams has filled one of Washington's most glaring holes of recent seasons. Antwaan Randle El, who was released following the 2009 season, had averaged just 6.2 yards per punt return over three seasons. Last year, the Redskins ranked 30th in the league. Banks is averaging 13.8 yards per return in five games this season.
"I just wanted to make a big play for my team," Banks said. "Any way I can get the ball in my hands is an opportunity. I want to be that guy to make a big play."