Replacing a veteran isn't always easy. From Redskin Park comes a case in point: veteran kick returner Mike Nelms.
Two and a half weeks ago, Nelms lost his job. So far, it has taken six men to take his place, counting practice and games.
On Aug. 27, the day Nelms was waived, the Redskins figured that two newcomers would be needed to replace him -- Michael Morton for kickoff returns and Gary Clark for punt returns.
But, on Wednesday, Morton was waived to make room for Ken Jenkins, another versatile return man recently let go by Detroit.
And, while Morton is looking for another job, Clark, who is recovering from a sprained right knee, has not returned a punt in a game since before Nelms left.
In the Redskins' 44-14 loss to Dallas Monday night, neither Morton nor rookie Raphel Cherry looked particularly good. Both made mistakes. There were no long, open-field runs. There was lousy field position.
Yet no one called Mike Nelms to ask him to come back.
"I don't think we're asking, 'Did we do the right thing (in releasing Nelms)?' " special teams coach Wayne Sevier said yesterday. "I don't think we're reevaluating that decision at all. I think that was the right decision at the time, and I don't think we've ever looked back on it."
Some numbers: In the Cowboys game, Morton returned six kickoffs for 131 yards, a 21.8-yard average. In the third quarter, on one of the Cowboys' numerous kickoffs, he failed to reach a hole his blockers had opened and potentially cost the team a long gain "at a time when we really needed something big," Sevier said.
In his five seasons here, Nelms averaged 23.6 yards on kickoffs, although in 1984, his average dropped to 20.1.
Cherry fielded three punts. One was a fair catch and the other two he returned for a total of 13 yards. His long run of nine yards was anything but spectacular, considering he caught that punt at the Washington four.
Nelms' five-year average was 9.2 yards.
Jenkins will return all of the kickoffs for the Redskins when they play the Houston Oilers Sunday at 1 p.m. at RFK Stadium, Sevier said, with Keith Griffin as his backup now that Morton is gone.
Cherry again is expected to stand deep on punt returns. Clark, Jenkins and cornerback Darrell Green will be his backups.
"You don't know who's going to be back there week after week," Griffin said. "With Mike, he was smart. He was the sure thing. I guess that's what they're looking for -- someone they can depend on the same as Mike."
Coach Joe Gibbs explains the changes simply. Clark would be returning punts were it not for his injury, but Cherry now has that job, perhaps permanently. As for the Jenkins-Morton switch, Jenkins is considered a quicker study and a better runner than Morton.
"We think he will fill the roles of kick returner, punt returner and running back better than what we had," Gibbs said.
Jenkins, 26, grew up a Redskins fan in Wheaton. After he graduated from Bucknell in 1982, two teams were interested in him.
"It was here or Philadelphia," Jenkins said yesterday. "I chose Philadelphia because of Mike Nelms. That was the only reason. I thought he was a super ballplayer. He was in his prime then."
Nelms, a three-time Pro Bowl player, became expendable this preseason when the National Football League decided each team would be allowed to keep only 45 players on its roster instead of 49. Versatility became important, and the coaches figured Nelms never could be used at any of the 22 offensive or defensive positions, while all the other return men can play in another spot.
"With a 45-man roster, you've got to go a little more to the outside (to find players) than from within, which you could do at 49," Sevier said. "So that makes it more of a revolving-door type of thing."
Jenkins is ecstatic that the door has kept spinning. He was left without a job last week when the Lions cut to their 45-man roster, but the Redskins immediately called and flew him in for a tryout.
"They told me they would make a decision after the Monday night game," Jenkins said.
The Redskins decided not to sign Jenkins last week because too much of the game plan already was in place, Sevier said.
"It really wasn't anything Mike Morton did. A big part of the decision was the way Jenkins produced against us. He had a 41-yard punt return against us, and that impressed me," Sevier said.
As for the punt-return game, it's logical to ask why Cherry, the backup free safety who last returned a punt as a freshman in college, didn't get more work in preseason.
The reason, according to the coaches, is that others were being tried out: rookie Jamie Harris, who was drafted to return punts but was released early, Clark and Nelms. When Clark was injured in the third preseason game and Nelms was cut four days later, there was no one else to turn to but Cherry.
"Our problem with Raphel is that he had only one game, the Tampa Bay game, and none of the unusual situations came up that he had to react to," Sevier said. "It's a learning situation for him, and he's a very gifted athlete who will work through this."
But Clark says it "bothers" him to be the backup punt returner. "I thought it was temporary, but you can't knock a guy for doing a good job," he said of Cherry.
The decision to keep the young players and get rid of the old is not always easy for the coaches.
"An older player has been there, he makes the right decisions," said Sevier. "The younger player has got to learn. But if that bothers you, then there's only one result. You'll never replace the older guy."