The former Apache helicopter pilot and company commander stood in front of the room and issued the challenge.
“Who wants to join my special forces?” Ben Kotwica asked, strong and clear as he conducted his first special teams meeting at Redskins Park back in the spring. He spoke of pride, commitment, and a physical style of play, and again, asked who wanted to join his “special forces.”
Ears perked up. Things had definitely changed.
Special teams play ranked among the lowest of the lowlights during Washington’s 3-13 campaign in 2013.
Keith Burns never could find the right buttons to push as the first-year coordinator who took over for the long-time, well-respected firecracker of a special teams coach, Danny Smith. Burns struggled to find willing participants to round out his units. Some players disagreed with his philosophies and schemes, and that led to arguments in meeting rooms and sometimes on the sidelines. During one heated exchange, Burns challenged a player to fight him.
There was nothing special about Washington’s special teams units. All pride in the units had been lost.
And so, finding the right man to overhaul the unit ranked among Jay Gruden’s first moves after being hired as head coach in January.
He zeroed in on Kotwica, whose contract with the New York Jets had just expired. Under Kotwica, the Jets in 2013 ranked among the top 10 in the NFL in kickoff return yards, and 17th on kickoff coverage. By no coincidence, those two areas had ranked among Washington’s biggest weaknesses.
It also wasn’t just happenstance that some of Kotwica’s strengths — discipline, planning, strong motivational and communication skills — represented weaknesses of the previous coordinator.
Kotwica had proven himself as a fast riser in the NFL coaching ranks. And his leadership skills came without question both on the field and off.
After concluding his senior season as a linebacker for Army, where he anchored the defense and helped his team to 10 wins — most in school history — Kotwica went on to serve his country as an Apache helicopter pilot. During his eight years in the Army, Kotwica deployed to Bosnia, and was stationed in Korea. In 2004, as a captain in the second Iraq war, Kotwica flew more than 1,000 combat hours.
Kotwica never lost his love for football, and he realized coaching bore a number of similarities to his role as a company commander, where he had to unite a group of men, get them to buy in on an important mission and execute with precision.
Upon completion of his military career in 2005, Bob Sutton, Kotwica’s former coach at West Point, helped the soldier get a job as the defensive coordinator for the U.S. Military Academy prep school’s football team.
Two years later, upon Sutton’s recommendation, then-Jets head coach Eric Mangini gave Kotwica an entry-level job on his staff as a quality control assistant for the defensive and special teams units. Six years later, he was promoted to special teams coordinator.
Now in Washington, Kotwica assumes the task of rebuilding the special teams units. During free agency, the Redskins pursued players who could contribute there, not just on offense or defense.
In the opening days of the shopping period, Washington signed wide receiver Andre Roberts, who will compete as a punt and kick returner, and linebackers Akeem Jordan and Adam Hayward, who had both served as special teams captains for their previous teams.
During his initial address and in meetings since, Kotwica has stressed the importance of excellence on special teams. This isn’t where players incapable of starting get stashed, as a number of players viewed the units last season. Kotwica wants and expects the best.
“I think any time you try to form a unit or an organization, you want to instill a culture,” Kotwica said. “So there are things that I’ve brought from my military background. I put an ‘Apply within’ sign on my front door, and we’re taking all applicants, and I think guys have bought into that. A lot of guys have signed up and want to help this ballclub.”
Thus far, Kotwica’s tactics have worked.
There’s a new air in the special teams meetings and practices, said fullback Darrel Young — one of the few bright spots on the units last season. He said Kotwica, with his militaristic style, has impressed players and already has proven himself as “a leader of men.”
Fellow special teams standout Niles Paul — one of the few players last season who seemed vexed over the disarray of the unit — agrees.
“We’ve got a bunch of — with all the people we brought in — a bunch of people feeding off each other, who believe in what we’re doing out here and who are having a good time,” Paul said. “It’s definitely the way Ben communicates. You know Ben is a military guy. First day of special teams, he addressed us and said, ‘Who wants to join my special forces?’ And everybody was like, ‘Dang, I want to join the special forces.’ He’s getting everybody to buy into what he’s selling. We’re believing in him. That’s the big thing when you get a new coach, is guys believing in him. . . . Guys are communicating, guys are wanting to make tackles. That’s what special teams is all about.”
Gruden agreed that Kotwica’s approach makes it impossible for players to take his message lightly or disrespect him.
“Hell,” Gruden chuckled. “He intimidates me. I’m never going to overstep my boundaries with him.”
But Kotwica has done more than talk. He has backed up his all-hands-on-deck message by enlisting the services of position coaches to help the special teams staff in an attempt to ensure that his players receive the best instruction possible, and to spark greater unity.
“I think that you can talk special teams and how important it is, but you’ve got to walk it,” Kotwica said. “I think when you incorporate those other coaches, I think the players see that and feel how important that is. You can hear that special teams are important and field position is important, but when players see [wide receivers coach] Ike Hilliard, [running backs coach] Randy Jordan helping out, it internalizes that.”
In addition to speed, physicality and precision, Kotwica has stressed the importance of competition. He has both inexperienced and seasoned players auditioning for roles on his units. Washington also has two place kickers, two punters and even two long snappers competing for jobs — a rarity.
Kotwica believes that competition will cause the players to work harder for jobs while also positioning him to field the best possible units, which will spur a Washington turnaround. That and preparation represent the biggest keys to success, the coach believes.
“Whether it’s in the desert of Iraq or out on the football field on Sunday,” Kotwica said, “you have to be able to make adjustments and instill that confidence in your soldiers or your players that the job is going to get done.”