The Washington Redskins went back to Niles Paul as their primary kick returner for Thursday’s 34-27 loss at Minnesota, and the third-year pro turned in a solid day, averaging 24.7 yards on three attempts and giving his team some of its best field position on kickoffs of the season.
The Redskins had used running back Chris Thompson and wide receiver Josh Morgan on kick returns in the previous eight games of the season, but both had struggled. Thompson averaged 20 yards per return, which ranks 69th in the NFL, and Morgan 19.9 yards per return (72nd).
With most kicks traveling several yards into the end zone, the two return men rarely got the ball back to the 20-yard line for Washington.
Paul had served as Washington’s kick returner down the stretch of last season – replacing a struggling Brandon Banks – but new special teams coach Keith Burns opted to give Thompson the first crack at the job this season, and he used Paul as Thompson’s lead blocker. Paul remained in the same capacity when Morgan took over after four games.
Asked earlier this season what prompted him to not use Paul, who in 13 attempts last season averaged 21.8 yards a return with a long of 48, as his return man, Burns said only that he was aware of Paul’s capabilities, and that eventually, he might receive a chance to return kicks again.
Paul had said during the preseason and early weeks of the regular season that he didn’t know why he hadn’t gotten a chance to return kicks. But the 6-foot-1, 233-pounder, who runs a 4.41-second 40-yard dash, maintained belief that his size and physical running style would serve the team well on kickoffs because both enable him to hit holes harder and break tackles to provide better returns.
On Paul’s three returns, the Redskins started possessions at the 22-, 23- and 28-yard lines. Redskins coaches came away from the game encouraged by his production. Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan described himself as “very satisfied” with Paul’s play.
“We’re going to move people around. If somebody takes advantages of their opportunities, then they’ll stay there. If they don’t, then we’ll try somebody else,” Shanahan said. “[That’s] one of the reasons why we put Niles back there, to give him a little shot, and he took advantage of that opportunity. I think we were one or two blocks away on a couple of those returns from going the distance. We had a lead blocker on two kickoffs – instead of being a 22-, 23-yard return, we had a chance to have a very big play. So, you know, that was encouraging.”
Shanahan indicated that the team could be looking for another punt returner after Morgan, who is averaging 7.4 yards per attempt, failed to create a spark on Thursday.
“We’ll experiment with returners throughout the year until we get the guy that we want,” Shanahan said. “One of the things that you have to do as a returner is make good decisions. You’ve got to know when to fair catch it, when to take your opportunities to turn it up the field.”
Morgan, who hadn’t returned punts in his five previous NFL seasons but took over for Thompson, has struggled for the most part, but against Denver did rip off a 34-yard return. He had a close call on Thursday night as he nearly lost the ball on the one punt he tried to field. He appeared to be interfered with by a defender, but officials didn’t throw a flag. Morgan pounced on the ball, and Washington maintained possession.
Asked about Morgan’s struggles, Shanahan said, “You put it on everybody, you put it on everybody. So it’s not one guy, we understand, but the great ones, the great ones sometimes miss four or five guys. The guys that are usually first, second or third in the league can make two, three, four people miss. So you’re always looking for that guy, just like Josh did against Denver – he made three guys miss, so you know he’s got that ability, but we’re going to continually have guys compete for positions and we’ll try to go with the best player.”
Discussing Morgan’s decision-making, Shanahan said, “Well, you know what, one thing – he’s got a lot of guts. In fact, during that game he was actually contacted before he caught the ball if you look at it in slow motion. So he’s fearless and you know that, but sometimes being fearless causes turnovers, so we ask him to be smart as well.”
Washington planned to enter the season with second-year cornerback Richard Crawford as their punt returner, but he tore ligaments in his knee in a game during the preseason and was lost for the season. Crawford last season averaged 19.5 yards a punt return, which ranked sixth in the NFL.
Paul was a first-team all Big 12 punt returner at Nebraska, but hasn’t yet been used in that capacity by the Redskins.