It was a changing-of-the-guard day for the Washington Redskins' embattled special teams. Wide receiver Chris Thomas, who had been a special-teams leader until he was released Tuesday, gathered his belongings and left Redskin Park early yesterday. On the practice field later in the day, just-signed linebacker Eddie Mason began trying to help upgrade the unit.
In most corners of Redskin Park, it is the franchise's first feel-good week in quite a while. The Redskins are coming off a 50-21 pounding of the New York Giants at Giants Stadium and have the league's top-ranked offense. They will enter Sunday's game against the New York Jets with the NFL's top-rated passer in quarterback Brad Johnson and the league's leading rusher in tailback Stephen Davis. Wide receiver Michael Westbrook leads the NFC in receiving yards, and the Redskins saw signs of improvement from their defense last weekend.
But the mistakes continued on special teams. The Giants had two long kickoff returns, tipped a punt and blocked an extra point. That came on the heels of two special-teams blunders during the Redskins' fourth-quarter meltdown in their 41-35, season-opening overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys recovered an onside kick, and Redskins place kicker Brett Conway never got to attempt a game-winning 41-yard field goal in the closing moments of regulation because holder Matt Turk mishandled the snap from his brother Dan.
"I'm disappointed at the types of mistakes we've had," Coach Norv Turner said after yesterday's practice. " . . . It's been emphasized strongly to our guys we need to have more consistency in that area and we need to improve."
The franchise has a long tradition of superb special-teams play. Even now, Matt Turk has been to three straight Pro Bowls as the NFC's punter, and Brian Mitchell remains a dangerous kick returner. Second-year special teams coach LeCharls McDaniel stresses that his players are playing hard and mostly are playing well. But the Redskins also have been mixing in a few glaring mistakes per game.
"I wouldn't say we're struggling," Mitchell said. "We're struggling a little bit on kickoff coverage. That's it. I'm averaging 12 yards [actually 12.4 yards] per punt return. If you do that all year, you go to the Pro Bowl. I don't think we're struggling on returns. Our punt coverage has done well. On kickoff coverage, we've had some problems. Two of them went bad Sunday. You can't have those, but we're not struggling. We've just had a few bad plays."
The good news for the Redskins Sunday was that Conway kicked off nine times. One was a squib kick in the final moments of the first half that bounced off a Giants player and was recovered by the Redskins. Giants returners were pinned inside the 23-yard line five times. But the Giants also had two kickoff returns longer than 40 yards, a 41-yarder by Tiki Barber and a 45-yarder by David Patten.
"In most cases, our guys look like they understand what we're trying to do and look like they know what they're doing," Turner said. "On the two [long returns], our guys look like they don't understand and don't know what they're doing. They run out of their lanes, and we get a big play against us. What we're talking about is consistency."
Thomas was on the roster mainly for his special-teams play, but was one of the main culprits on the onside kick recovered by the Cowboys. He said as he left Redskin Park yesterday he was surprised when he was cut.
"I was pretty surprised, and I think my teammates were even more surprised," Thomas said. "I feel like I was a big leader of the special teams."
Thomas said Redskins officials told him there's a possibility he could be re-signed. He said he was told his history of injuries, not his mistake against the Cowboys, was the main reason he was cut, and he indicated he was willing to believe that.
"It's part of the business," Thomas said. "It's not always fair. . . . If you're trying to better your special teams, why would you get rid of the player considered your leader on special teams?"
The Redskins hope Mason provides immediate help on their kick-coverage units. As a rookie for the Jets in 1995, he was selected by his teammates as special-teams most valuable player.
He watched films of the Redskins' special teams with McDaniel Tuesday, and he said yesterday: "It's a matter of guys coming together. It's early in the year. Guys have been through training camp and the preseason, but it's different after the season starts. It's a matter of coming together and jelling. You have to communicate just like on offense or defense. I hope to bring leadership, and help these guys have some unity and success."
Mason suffered a severe knee injury during a Jets' preseason game in 1996, and spent that season on the injured reserve list. He was cut by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in training camp in '97 and by the Carolina Panthers in training camp in '98, and was teaching school before the Jacksonville Jaguars signed him last December. He played in four regular season games and two postseason contests for the Jaguars last season. The Redskins contacted him a week or so ago, he said, after he had been released by the Jaguars. While he was at Redskin Park Tuesday waiting to sign his contract, his cell phone rang. The Jaguars wanted to re-sign him. Mason politely declined.
"I have no bad blood with Jacksonville, but I don't believe in bad business," Mason said. "The Redskins didn't have to bring me in and give me an opportunity, but they did. It's a winning team on the rise again. If they'd called Monday instead of [Tuesday], it might have been different."