John Hall began the week kicking imaginary footballs, working strictly on his technique. On Tuesday, he made an incremental progression, testing his injured right quadriceps by kicking a plush and forgiving Nerf football, and yesterday morning he managed to strike an NFL-certified ball 12 times under the supervision of trainers, doing so from a maximum of 30 yards.
While Hall, 31, in his third season as the Washington Redskins' kicker, was enthused about those developments, he remains highly unlikely to be activated for Sunday's game against Seattle at FedEx Field, Coach Joe Gibbs said, perhaps throwing his future into doubt.
With Hall battling hamstring injuries, the Redskins carried two kickers for most of last season before finally placing him on the injured reserve list. Because roster spots are at a premium, coaches could do the same this season and stick with rookie kicker Nick Novak. Washington (2-0) has already dumped its return specialist (Antonio Brown) and punter (Andy Groom) and, with pressure mounting to improve its special teams, there is little margin for error.
"It's always tough," Gibbs said of carrying two kickers. "We went for quite a while last year and you're always continuing to monitor how he's doing and talking to the trainers almost every day. But these things, they take a while. We'll have to see.
"Obviously, he's had a series of muscle problems, and I think obviously it concerns you. I think he's going to have to actually be in a position where he can kick 100 percent -- and do it for a couple of weeks -- before you'd say you could feel like it would be fair to the team to put him back in there."
Hall, listed as questionable on the week's initial injury report, hurt himself after making all three attempts in the Redskins' 9-7 victory over Chicago. But he has been unable to kick freely since that day -- Sept. 11 -- and was unable to practice at all for two weeks. Even now, he is limited. He did not participate in the afternoon portion of practice, has yet to work on kickoffs and is slated for only a marginally increased workload the next few days. After missing eight games last season, Hall's frustration is mounting -- he has participated in one of the Redskins' last five games overall.
"There's only so many roster spots on the team," Hall said, "and they want players who can help, and with me being injured that's not helping out. So there's pressure to get back and I want to play. I want to get out there. It's tough. My wife's been good; she keeps me grounded and we just pray a lot and know that everything works out for a reason and happens for a reason. So you just keep your nose to the grindstone and hope it gets better."
The Redskins signed Hall away from the New York Jets in 2003 -- one of four free agents they plucked from the club that offseason -- and expected him to solidify a shaky kicking game for years to come (Washington churned through three kickers, including the infamous Jose Cortez in 2002). Hall had been inactive for just one game through his first six seasons and routinely converted more than 75 percent of his field-goal attempts.
But Hall injured his hamstring in kick coverage in Week 2 last season -- he is a workout warrior and former linebacker who loves the physical aspect of the game -- and was never the same. He was placed on the injured reserve list on Dec. 16, with three games remaining. All was well in the preseason, when he outclassed Jeff Chandler to reclaim his job, but Hall's injury threatens to cast a pall over his tenure here. He is fighting the urge to do too much too soon, and resigned to making a gradual return to full strength.
"I played hurt all of last year until finally they said take some time off," Hall said. "But with this [injury], this is different. This is the main muscle in my leg that I'm using. A hamstring you can play hurt with, because you're not using that part of your leg. It's a matter of being smart about it and getting to feel 100 percent comfortable out there doing my job."
In the meantime, Novak is handling the daily kicking duties and practicing with the special teams units. A Virginia native, Novak provided some memorable kicks at Maryland, but nothing topped connecting on two extra points in Washington's 14-13 win Sept. 19 at Dallas. "I don't think it gets any bigger than that," Novak said, "besides maybe the Super Bowl."
Novak's parents and brother attended his NFL debut, and considerably more family and friends will watch Sunday at FedEx Field. The expectation is that he will be on the field once again, and, should he perform well, perhaps for the immediate future.
"They haven't told me anything," Novak said of the coaches, "but I'm assuming that I'm kicking on Sunday. So I'm preparing like I'm the number one guy until they tell me differently. My mind-set won't change. Every day I try to gain the trust of Coach Gibbs and all the players. I just try to take nothing for granted and do my best every day."