Tom Tupa took the first snap of yesterday's practice and boomed a rainbow punt that dropped near the right sideline. Tupa, wearing burgundy shorts, white jersey and a helmet, booted his next kick toward the left side. James Thrash and Antonio Brown were the punt returners, scrambling to haul in Tupa's exquisitely placed kicks.
Then Tupa, in his 16th season, sprinted to the other end of the field before practicing the same punts again. Washington's workout focused on its punting units and punt return unit. In between punts, special teams coach Danny Smith barked out instructions for tendencies that the Cincinnati Bengals -- Sunday's opponent at FedEx Field -- have shown in their punting game.
It's the only time of the week that the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Tupa is in the spotlight -- until game day.
Tupa, 38, has emerged as one of Washington's most valuable players, and has played well enough for Pro Bowl consideration. The Redskins have the 27th-ranked offense in the 32-team league while Washington's defense is ranked No. 1. Thus, Washington's best chances of winning mean gaining the edge in field position.
"He exchanges tons of field position," Coach Joe Gibbs said yesterday. "If you can punt the ball like that and cover it, that's a big part of keeping people going a long ways. And if our defense can continue to play the way it's been playing, it makes it tough for people to go a long way to score points.
"He's been absolutely outstanding and certainly impressive. He's as good as I've seen."
Tupa leads the NFL in punts with 59 -- six more than the next punter. But the inordinate amount of punts hasn't reduced Tupa's accuracy or leg strength; Tupa has the fifth-best gross average in the NFL at 44.1 yards per punt and is tied with Todd Sauerbrun of the Carolina Panthers for the league lead with 18 punts inside the 20-yard line. Tupa's net average is unspectacular at 36.6 yards, among the middle of the pack, partly because of occasional breakdowns in the Redskins' punt coverage.
Tupa works obsessively on his punts. After yesterday's punt team drills, Tupa moved to the next field to continue punting, and ended up with about 70 punts.
"I kick until I'm happy with it, until I feel good about it," said Tupa, who made the Pro Bowl in 1999. "Sometimes that takes a while."
Most long punt returns, Smith has said, occur when the ball is kicked near the middle of the field. Smith emphasizes directional punting and hang time, and Tupa is known for a quick release and nifty placement. When necessary, however, Tupa hits line-drive punts to send primary returners rushing from one side of the field to the other.
"Everybody's got confidence in him," snapper Ethan Albright said. "When he says it's going to punt to the right it's going to be at the right. A lot of times, a young punter says the ball is going to go right and it goes left and you got problems."
During a frenetic offseason for Washington, Tupa's signing -- a four-year deal worth $3.065 million, including a $675,000 bonus -- was essentially a footnote. Tupa, like most NFL punters, plays in anonymity. Tupa's stall fittingly is in the corner of the Redskins' locker room farthest from the entrance -- next to the equipment room. Tupa could pass for an assistant trainer if not for his height.
Tupa doesn't work out during the offseason but undergoes an intensive regimen when training camp starts. "He's not a young buck any more, but he's still running around out there with the young bucks," place kicker John Hall said. "I have no idea what he does -- if he goes to the fountain of youth or what."
The Redskins were enticed by Tupa's consistency over a long career. Tupa, whose career-long punt is 73 yards in 1997 with the New England Patriots, does not seem to have lost any leg strength. Last year with Tampa Bay, Tupa was third in the NFC with a gross average of 43.3 -- matching his career average. "You've got to have consistency if you're going to be in the league as long as he has," said Redskins Vice President Vinny Cerrato on the practice field minutes before watching Tupa's punts.
A secondary factor in Washington's decision to pursue Tupa was his experience being Hall's holder with the New York Jets from 1999 to 2001. Tupa has excellent hands that allow him to snag so-so snaps and place them down smoothly enough for a kick.
"I love him because he has great hands," Albright said. "It takes pressure off my job. I know if it's not perfect, he's going to catch it. I don't have to guide it -- I can just throw it."
Tupa is so versatile that he can be called on as an emergency quarterback. Tupa was selected as quarterback and punter by the Phoenix Cardinals in the third round of the 1988 draft. From 1989 to 1991, Tupa started 13 games for Joe Bugel, the Cardinals' head coach at the time and now Washington's assistant head coach-offense.
The Redskins have turned to trick plays in the past two games. Tupa is an option either punting or holding. But Tupa said that his background has been a disadvantage because opponents have appeared wary.
"I'm all for a fake," said Tupa, who has completed 259 of 504 passes for 3,430 and 12 touchdowns in his NFL career. "I think Coach understands well enough that he can call me."