Only a muffed punt against Buffalo Nov. 29 has marred an otherwise remarkable turnaround over the last nine weeks by the Redskin special teams, which currently are ranked No. 2 unofficially in the league. And now Washington has been told by the National Football League that the punt play should have been nullified by a penalty.
League sources said that a review of Buffalo game films by the NFL showed that the Bills should have been penalized for interfering with Mike Nelms. No penalty was called, and Buffalo used the turnover to set up what became the winning touchdown in a 21-14 Bills' victory.
Redskin Coach Joe Gibbs refused yesterday either to acknowledge he had heard from the league or discuss its reply. He previously had said he had sent clips of that play, along with three others, to the league for review.
"Whatever has happened is between the league and myself and that's how we are going to keep it," he said.
Regardless of the punt play, Gibbs still considers the special teams to be the Redskins' most consistent unit. This is a marked change from earlier in the season, when they were outplayed decisively almost every week.
As a reward for the improvement, the prominent members of the special teams will be introduced before the Baltimore game Sunday at 1 p.m. at RFK Stadium.
"They've earned the recognition," said Wayne Sevier, the special teams coach. "We've come a long way."
Using a system in which four elements (kickoff return and coverage, punt return and coverage) are considered, the Redskins' special teams rank behind only San Diego. After the first five games, they were 16th.
The improvement is due to Nelms' recovery from a broken thumb, the addition of seven players who have excelled on the teams, and a consistency that developed when personnel shuffling stopped.
"We had so many squad injuries that we were shuffling people every week," said Sevier. "Joe Gibbs said we wouldn't get better until we had a nucleus of seven or eight players who wanted to play special teams. Well, last week against the Eagles, we had eight guys who played on all four teams. There's that nucleus."
Of those eight, only two -- Otis Wonsley and Darryl Grant -- have been on the roster all season. The others -- Rickey Claitt, Dallas Hickman, Quentin Lowery, Pete Cronan, Bob Raba and Alvin Garrett -- were added week by week, as the Redskins deliberately tried to sign players who could give the special teams a lift. This week, Nick Giaquinto will replace Cronan, who is replacing injured Neal Olkewicz at middle linebacker.
Nelms, Wonsley and Claitt have been the standout players. Cronan, who was waived by Seattle in October, and Hickman, the former captain of the special teams who was cut in preseason and then re-signed in October, have filled a leadership void.