Special teams usually are noticed only when something goes wrong, and the Washington Redskins' special teams have made themselves very noticeable this season. That's why, midway through the fourth quarter of Sunday's 38-36 win over the Carolina Panthers at Redskins Stadium, many fans cheered when the Redskins made it through a kickoff return without committing a penalty.
In truth, the Redskins' special teams have not been across-the-board bad this season. Place kicker Brett Conway provided the game-winning field goal in the closing moments Sunday and has converted all six of his field goal attempts this season.
Brian Mitchell ranks third in the NFC in punt returns. Punter Matt Turk hasn't had his typical Pro Bowl season, but his 38-yard net average is fourth in the NFC. Coach Norv Turner said the kickoff coverage Sunday was the best it has been in a game during his six seasons with the team.
"It's easy to say we have a problem on our special teams," Turner said. "Well, special teams is made up of a number of segments."
But the positives have been accompanied by too many negatives. The Redskins are ranked 11th among the 15 NFC teams in kickoff coverage. They're last in the league in kickoff returns.
There have been gaffes in every game. In the season-opening overtime loss, the Dallas Cowboys were aided in their fourth-quarter comeback by two special-teams blunders. They recovered an onside kick, and Turk dropped the snap from his brother Dan to prevent Conway from attempting a game-winning field goal in the final seconds of regulation.
The New York Giants had two kickoff returns over 40 yards in Week 2, and the New York Jets had an 81-yard kickoff return in Week 3. On Sunday, Mitchell fumbled a kickoff return to set up a first-quarter touchdown by Carolina, and only an instant-replay reversal negated his fourth-quarter fumble on a punt return that could have sealed a victory for the Panthers. The Redskins began consecutive second-half drives at their 8- and 10-yard lines because of holding penalties on kickoff returns.
"The goal is to be good all the time," LeCharls McDaniel, the Redskins' second-year special teams coach, said yesterday. "Not sometimes, not five out of six -- all the time. The guys have to not put pressure on themselves, don't try to make plays when you can't make a play. Brian was trying to make something happen. These guys are human. They're trying to do the right thing. What they need to remember is, `Do your job. Don't try to do more.' "
This is a franchise with a long tradition of special-teams excellence, but following that tradition is becoming increasingly difficult in the modern-day NFL. Because of the salary cap, teams cannot afford to keep veterans just to play on special teams, so coaches instead try to patch together units full of young players with little or no special-teams experience.
"You've got to get a rhythm on special teams, just like you do on offense or defense," said Marv Levy, who was one of the NFL's first special-teams coaches long before he led the Buffalo Bills to four Super Bowl appearances as a head coach.
Levy served as George Allen's special-teams coach with the Redskins in the early 1970s. "One of George's things was, the last guy on the depth chart at each position wasn't necessarily the third-best tight end or the eighth-best defensive back," said Levy, now an analyst with Fox Sports Net. "He was the best special-teams player at that position. I don't know how many teams emphasize it that way now."
The Redskins are 3-1 despite having the NFL's last-ranked defense and an error-prone special teams. During this bye week, Turner said the club's main objective is to fix problems in those two areas.
It's a win-or-else season for the Redskins, and Turner and McDaniel have made clear to the players that special-teams mistakes won't be tolerated. Two special-teams players, wide receiver Chris Thomas and safety Jamel Williams, have been cut in recent weeks.
The Redskins signed linebacker Eddie Mason and safety Toby Wright to replace them. Mason has made an immediate impact on the kick-coverage units, and Wright likely will be worked into the special-teams mix soon. Club officials said the Redskins will continue to look to add players capable of helping them on special teams.
The Redskins cut one of their better special-teams players, cornerback Scott Turner, prior to the 1998 season. They used their fourth-round pick in April's college draft on Georgia Tech linebacker Nate Stimson, hoping that he'd be a force on special teams. But he had a poor training camp and was cut. Thomas was regarded as one of the leaders on special teams. But he couldn't stay healthy and had a hand in some of this season's mistakes -- including the Cowboys' onside-kick recovery.
Cornerback Tito Paul was acquired in a preseason trade with the Denver Broncos because of his special-teams play. After being on the inactive list for three games, Paul had a penalty-filled debut on special teams Sunday.
Turner and McDaniel have delivered verbal kicks in the pants to players regularly this season, stressing the importance of being disciplined on kick-coverage units and the need to make their blocks on kick returns. The Redskins hope their special-teams play will improve because of the new players they've brought in and because those lessons finally will sink in.
"We had a tough time with our kickoff coverage in the first couple games," Turner said. "In the Jets game, on five of the six we did a great job. In this game, on every kickoff we did a great job. Our kickoff coverage was the best it's been since I've been here. It wasn't just effective. It was physical."
The Redskins believe that proven veterans such as Mitchell and Matt Turk will get themselves going.
"I hope people start writing me off," Mitchell, who last season led the NFL in total combined net yards for the fourth time in five years, said recently. "People started writing me off last year, and I came back strong."
Turk has been to three consecutive Pro Bowls and entered this season with a career average of 44.2 yards per punt. He's averaging 42.3 yards per punt this season, and an unusual portion of his kicks have been low line drives.
"He's like a lot of people," McDaniel said yesterday. "He's trying to make something happen, and he's pressing."
The bright spot has been Conway, who has stabilized the team's kicking situation after winning the job in training camp in a three-way competition involving veteran Cary Blanchard and rookie Jeff Hall.
"He's always had the physical ability, and it's good to see he's handling the pressure put on him," McDaniel said.
This season will be crucial for the Washington Redskins -- the first under the ownership of Daniel M. Snyder and sixth under Coach Norv Turner. Each Wednesday, The Washington Post will draw analysis from inside and outside the organization in hopes of better understanding the previous Sunday's game and state of the team.