During training camp, Washington Redskins special teams coach Danny Smith would tell anyone who asked just how much work lie ahead. The Redskins were coming off another season of poor special teams play, and Smith was hoping to make considerable progress in his first year with the team. Now, after four games in which Washington has struggled at times on both kickoff and punt coverage and returns, Smith has seen nothing to make him think his job will become any easier.
"We've still got a lot of work to do, we really do," Smith said. "Everybody thought I was just saying that [during camp] and making it up, but we have a lot of work to do, we really do, and our players understand that. Coach [Joe] Gibbs has made it very important, special teams, and we're crossing that bridge. It takes a change in attitude and in culture, really. It's a process and it doesn't happen overnight, but obviously myself, our staff and the public would like that to happen faster than it has so far."
Special teams have been a consistent area of concern for the Redskins (1-3) in recent years, with the team lacking an explosive return game and surrendering significant yardage on punts and kickoffs. Smith's energy is endless and his voice booms during meetings and practices, but not all of the changes he hopes to make have taken hold. The Redskins have yielded a big return in three of their four games, are routinely losing the battle for field position and, save for the continued excellence of punter Tom Tupa, are lacking the type of individual performances needed on the units.
Smith can be demanding and is highly animated on the sideline, sometimes running onto the field to protest a call or bark out instructions. Sunday he was gesturing wildly after his unit snuffed out a fake field goal to force a turnover on downs, appearing to taunt Cleveland's bench a bit -- "Sometimes in this game your emotion takes off on you," Smith said. "It was just happily [done], that we were successful putting the ball back in our offense's hands." -- and that energy should rub off on players over time.
Last season, much of the blame for the problems fell to special teams coach Mike Stock, who was not retained after three years. Now, the players must accept full responsibility, kickoff and punt returner Chad Morton said.
"Coach Smith tries to put us in the best possible situation by trying to give us a lot of knowledge and a lot of information on the other team," Morton said. "We can't blame him. We can't blame people anymore. Last year we tried to put it off on Stock or [Coach Steve] Spurrier or whoever else, but those guys aren't here anymore and we don't have any more excuses."
Morton, who left the New York Jets for the Redskins in order to bolster the return game before last season, was given a hefty $2.5 million signing bonus, but has been largely held in check. He is averaging a modest 6.9 yards per punt return -- 17 returners in the NFL are averaging better yardage -- and 23 yards per kickoff return (tied for 11th in the NFC). Morton missed Sunday's 17-13 loss in Cleveland with a knee injury and, while he expects to practice much of this week, his knee is still sore and his playing status for Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens at FedEx Field will likely not be determined until just before kickoff.
Sunday, wide receiver James Thrash and running back Ladell Betts handled return duties in Morton's absence, and their production was in line with Morton's. There were no dynamic returns and when Washington's offense collapsed in the second half, the special teams units were unable to reverse the trend in field position.
"We've got a lot of things to work on," Morton said. "In this last game, we got beat in probably every single phase of special teams except for punting, which Tom Tupa did a great job of. But even then we still gave up a long return [Denis Northcutt returned a punt 44 yards in the first quarter for the Browns] and averaged 16 [yards] or something on kickoff returns the last game and seven on punts. So obviously it's not good enough."
Tupa has been the star of special teams. He is the leading punter in the NFC and has followed through on Smith's mandate to angle his punts toward the sideline. Smith's studies have shown most big returns in the NFL come from kicks and punts to the middle of the field, and by pinning a returner to one side, the sideline becomes an additional coverage man and the runner is forced to one side. "The sideline has never missed a tackle since the invention of this game," Smith said.
"Danny has stressed directional punting and I think it helps my coverage," Tupa said. "We use the sideline kind of like an extra man and you can pin them in a corner. So far it's been really good for us."
Yet there is room for improvement there as well, Smith said. The Redskins rank 19th in average kickoff returns against -- meaning 18 teams have done a better job on those coverages than Washington has -- and the team is allowing opponents to start their average drive near the 32-yard line, third worst in the conference. Tampa Bay's Frank Murphy returned kicks for 30 and 54 yards in the season-opening game, forcing kicker John Hall to make a touchdown-saving tackle. Hall again was called on to stop Willie Ponder's 34-yard return in Week 2, when he suffered another hamstring injury.
"It's a long year," said defensive back Todd Franz, a key member of the coverage units, "and if we don't have it fixed in the next two or three weeks, then you could worry a little bit. But there's no panic yet. We're improving and have to keep improving for the rest of the year."