Jeff Hayes was leaving a pizza restaurant the other day when he was stopped by a fan of the Washington Redskins.
"Hey, man, is your last name Hayes?" he asked. When told it was, he shook his head.
"You got to start punting better," he said before walking away. "You just aren't doing the job."
Hayes laughs when telling the story, but it's obvious the man's timing could have been better. Hayes didn't need a Monday morning critic to tell him what he already knew.
"I'm not kicking like I should, the team knows it, the coaches know it and I know it," he said yesterday after a longer-than-usual workout with Wayne Sevier, the special teams coach.
"The main thing is, I can't panic and I'm not. I expect to have a good game this weekend. I've kicked well in practice all week and it will carry over."
All punters and kickers experience slumps. But that doesn't make the last few weeks easier for Hayes, or for Sevier, who made the decision to keep the rookie from North Carolina and release Mike Connell, who had punted for the Redskins the last two years.
"I'm concerned, everyone is concerned," said Sevier, "but we are sticking with Jeff, no question about it. His kickoffs have been good and we are convinced that has helped Mark Moseley with his field goals. We know, too, that Jeff can kick better. He showed us that before."
Hayes won the punting job because he has a leg capable of producing kicks that go high and far, 60 yards or more. Sevier is confident he has the potential to be among the league's best punters. But for the moment, Hayes is not matching even Connell's ordinary statistics of last season.
After five games, Hayes' average of 34.6 yards is last in the league, as is his net average of 29.8. His gross average is three yards behind that of Jeff West of Seattle, who is ranked 27th. Among Hayes' punts was a 10-yarder shanked last Sunday against Dallas. It brought a quick reaction from the crowd at RFK Stadium: boos.
"I heard them," said Hayes, a friendly man who appears to be handling the pressure well. "But if you pay $13 for a ticket, you have a right to expect a better punt. So I should expect the boos. It didn't bother me. I know how a fan is, when you are going great he'll cheer and when you are messing up, he'll get on you.
"I could let them boo me right out of town, but I'm not going to let that happen. That's the least of my worries. I only know that if they were better, they would be out there kicking instead of me."
That is what frustrates Hayes. He knows he is better than he's shown. He proved that in training camp when he clearly won the job from Connell, a steady but unsensational punter who, the Redskins thought, was not in the same class as Hayes: someone who could stand in his end zone and kick the ball 50 yards.
Sevier, who had predicted Hayes would average 41 yards a punt this season, now is convinced that he needs another training camp to get into his groove. The problem is, of course, that neither Hayes nor the team has that luxury.
"Jeff left camp kicking in a rhythm," said Sevier. "Everything was smooth and consistent. He felt good about himself. But the strike interferred with all that. He kept kicking while he was out, but it's not the same as doing it in hot weather, day after day, against competition. You lose an edge.
"A veteran can shake that off better. But a rookie is still learning. He can't come back as fast because he doesn't have experience to fall back on. A year or two from now, he won't be having these problems. He'll be a lot steadier."
Sevier has detected faults in Hayes' steps before he punts and in the way he drops the ball before the kick. He had added a stutter step to his approach, which has been eliminated. Now the two are working on making his drop straighter instead of across his body.
"We've increased his kicking this week," Sevier said. "We went out today before everybody, so he could kick without anyone offering him advice about technical things. We also got a lot of work with (kick snapper) Jeff Bostic, which will help his timing.
"I could see improvement. He's hitting (the ball) a lot more consistent. But a punter is a lot like a golfer. You correct a flaw in the swing and go out and hit the ball good for awhile and then you have problems again. It takes awhile to feel completely comfortable with the right swing.
"In Jeff's case, we've taken care of the steps and the drop is improving. But he may hit only three of five or four of five right for now. In camp, he would be hitting five of five. And trying to solve a problem when it is cold and windy makes it more difficult."
"The strike isn't the reason for what happened," Hayes said. "I don't know what the reason is. I just know I have had two bad games in a row and that can't go on. Getting more reps (repetition) in this week has helped. But I know I could lay off for three weeks and go out there and punt better than I have been.
"A lot of this is mental. But I'm not going to let two bad games ruin my career. I'm capable of punting in this league for a long time. All I need is a couple of good punts and everything will be straightened out."
Guard Mark May did not practice yesterday because of a jammed neck. "It is stiff right now, but I'll be okay by Sunday (for the game in St. Louis)," he said. "I know how bad it may feel afterwards, but it should be okay during the game itself. If it feels all right, I will practice Friday." May hurt his neck in a freak accident at practice Wednesday. Fred Dean replaced him yesterday . . . Coach Joe Gibbs said the Redskins have looked into some indoor practice facilities in case they are needed in January, if the weather makes outside workouts impossible . . . Gibbs said fullback Otis Wonsley likely would not play Sunday because of a sore neck. Clarence Harmon will replace him on short yardage plays and as a blocking back.