With an increasing number of kickoffs expected to soar into the end zone this season, kick returners will face a very critical question: kneel it or return it?
“Hell no,” said Danny Smith, the Washington special teams coordinator. “He doesn’t make those decisions. I make every one of those decisions.”
Still, some sort of determination will have to be made. The new rule, which moved the kickoff from the 30-yard line to the 35 this season, could limit the impact of a player such as Banks on kickoffs, leaving his best opportunities in the punt return game.
“I just follow the rules,” said Banks, a wide receiver whose primary contribution has been returning punts and kicks. “If Danny tell me I can bring it out, that’s what I’m gonna do. And I’m gonna try to run it back every time.”
Banks won’t actually have that opportunity Friday when the Redskins travel to Indianapolis to play their second preseason game. His left knee, the same one that required surgery last season, is still bothering him, and Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan has decided to sit the second-year player. Terrence Austin is expected to return kicks in his place. Coaches will have to decide whether they want Austin to sprint out of the end zone or accept a touchback.
“We have a standard, and you have to meet certain things in order to bring the ball out,” Smith said. “Who are you playing against? How good is the coverage? Who do you got? What's the return? What's the hang time? How deep is it? There's so many factors in there. We just have to stay on top of that.”
No players will have an automatic green light, but there are circumstances, Smith said, in which returners will forego the touchback and hope they can run past the 20.
In their first preseason game, the Redskins faced two Pittsburgh kickoffs, both of which comfortably reached the end zone. On the first one, Banks caught the ball about six yards deep and ran it out 58 yards. To open the second half, Austin took a kickoff eight yards into the end zone and settled for the touchback.
Banks and Austin are players who see few looks as wide receivers. For them, special teams are an important way to earn a spot on the 53-man roster. Washington coaches say just because there might be more opportunities for touchbacks doesn’t necessarily mean returners will automatically take a knee.
“The better returners are going to get more opportunities,” Smith said.
The new rule could hurt the Redskins at both ends of the field. Largely because of Banks’s quickness, the Redskins’ average starting field position following a kickoff last season was the 27-yard line. And their kick coverage team was among the league's best. On average, opponents began their drives inside their own 24-yard line after kickoffs. Only one other NFL team — Atlanta — fared better.
“We take a lot of pride in that,” Smith said. “We want to cover.”
Smith won’t know which players he has on his coverage unit until final cuts are made, but he’s evaluating potential returners every day. Although Banks is the incumbent, he also has to show the team his knee is no longer a concern.
Banks averaged 25.1 yards per kick return last season, tied for 11th-best in the NFL, including a 96-yard return for a touchdown at Detroit. His 1,586 kick return yards were the fifth most in the league.
But his knee slowed him and his production suffered late in the season. His recovery has not been easy. Banks has missed two of the team's three practices since last Friday’s game. Coaches say he's still adjusting to football practices and hope the extra rest this week will help his aching knee.
“As he gets in better football shape, he's going to feel better in game situations,” Shanahan said. ”Our game plan is to have him full speed by the beginning of the season.”