When Washington Redskins return specialist Antonio Brown came off the field for the final time in the preseason Thursday night, he ranked precisely 62nd in the NFL in punt return average. He had failed to produce an electrifying moment in the exhibition games, while the Redskins' special teams units struggled again and committed a flurry of penalties in the process.
Few teams place more emphasis on special teams than Washington does, including an offseason spent stockpiling talent for the return and coverage units, but largely that work has not yet paid off. Overall, the Redskins suffered on special teams in 2004 -- a standout game in Detroit notwithstanding -- and will need a significant improvement there if they are to win more games in 2005.
Brown, who was signed in November, takes over primary return duties from Chad Morton, who was signed away from the New York Jets, then cut after two middling seasons. Andy Groom will make his first NFL punt Sunday in the season opener against Chicago, taking over for injured Tom Tupa, and John Hall, who had an excellent preseason, will make his first meaningful kicks since suffering season-ending injuries last December. There are questions surrounding all aspects of Washington's special teams, leaving Coach Joe Gibbs optimistic, if understated, about the units' progress.
"I sure hope so," Gibbs said.
The Redskins ranked second to last in the NFC in kickoff coverage (opponents' average start), and had only one touchback on a kickoff, tied for worst in the NFL. Washington was a disappointing 26th in punt return average (7.9 yards per return). That is the area where Brown, who has burning speed but must work on maintaining a steely mental focus, is supposed to excel, but he produced just 5.7 yards per punt on his 14 returns this preseason.
"I did everything that was asked," Brown said of his preseason outings. "Ensure the catch, get a first down on the punt returns, make our average starting point the 30 on kickoff returns. I think I did a pretty good job on special teams, it's just taking care of the little things and following the details. . . . After that, the big things can happen."
Brown also handled a majority of the kickoff responsibilities, and there are capable backups in wide receiver James Thrash and running back Ladell Betts. Wideout Santana Moss has a strong history of returning punts, but coaches might be reluctant to expose him to injury in that role. The Redskins have not had a punt return for a touchdown since Jacquez Green returned one 90 yards against Philadelphia on Sept. 16, 2002, a span of 46 games.
Having Hall healthy again should improve the kicking game, and while Groom was impressive in the preseason, he has never made a final NFL roster and could have early-season jitters. Gibbs left the decision on whether to select Groom or 16-year veteran Chris Mohr to special teams coach Danny Smith.
"I hate to kind of lay it on Danny," Gibbs said, "but it's Danny's deal, and I'm going to support him any way I can."
Ade Jimoh, a trusted special teams player, said he could not single out a particular nuance the team needed to prioritize. There were flaws -- sometimes major -- on all fronts.
"Everything is on the top of the pecking order," Jimoh said. "If we get penalties it kills your field position. If we don't cover well, then we're giving up field position, and if we don't return well, then there's no way we're going to get field position, and then you put the offense in a hole. They all have to work together as a whole. We can't focus on one thing, and let another area slack, because then you still have problems. We have to focus on all three areas at the same time."
Smith, who declined to comment yesterday for this story, will need better support from his players to make strides from last season. Besides lacking those game-changing plays, the group was prone to fundamental lapses that consistently created better field position for opponents and pushed back Washington's anemic offense. That was again the case in the preseason.
Even stalwarts like Thrash fell prey to preseason penalties.
"We definitely have to eliminate those mistakes," Thrash said. "If we want to get to where we want to be, we have to get rid of that."
A second season under Smith should make for better-prepared players, and given the depths out of which this offense is attempting to climb, there is significant pressure on the specials teams to become a weekly asset, and not an area of uncertainty.
"With a new coaching staff there were a lot of changes last year," special teams standout Mike Sellers said. "That's no excuse, because you're professionals and you should be able to adapt and do what you've got to do, but everybody had a better understanding of what's going on around here now, and what needs to be done."