How Can the Redskins Get Better? Special Teams Finds a Pulse!
by Chris Russell
Jul 05, 2014 -- 5:28pm
ESPN 980 Home of the Redskins

(Nick Wass, Associated Press)


This isn't going to be hard to figure out because there is almost no way that you could be any worse than the Redskins were last year on special teams. In part three of our summer series How Can the Redskins Get Better,? we tackle this monster issue.

If you missed the first two installments, this is a perfect way to catch up. A look at a key for the defense is here and a huge one for the offense is here.

Let's call it what it is. Mike Shanahan made some mistakes during his tenure. He lobbed bombs in the direction of Robert Griffin III and it backfired towards the end of a miserable season.

He made four mistakes that had a greater impact on the 2013 Redskins. These mistakes also had an effect on the division winning squad and who knows what will happen this year.

1. Cutting Graham Gano.
2. Making Danny Smith feel like he had a much better option in Pittsburgh.
3. Hiring Keith Burns.
4. Not finding a way to keep Lorenzo Alexander.

There were other mistakes made along the way. However those four impact decisions all backfired on the Redskins.

It was widely speculated or at least the thought was that Shanahan did not put an emphasis on the unit. That's fair, and the results or nonchalance proves that in at least the only way I can quantify.

Performance.

Before we get to how Bruce Allen and Jay Gruden have improved and attacked the unit, let's look back to some of the cause and effect of the above mentioned issues.

Shanahan was never really in love with Gano, a young but very talented and inconsistent placekicker who as you hopefully remember, I defended strongly. Gano's performance warranted competition, it did not justify giving up on a player that you had invested in.

Gano has since gone to Carolina and had a breakout year in 2013 and I expect him to be in the top-tier of kickers for the next several years. So do the Panthers, who rewarded him with a new multi-year contract.

Two issues bothered me with Shanahan and Gano. Shanahan didn't like some behind the scenes things about Gano and he set Gano up for the ultimate look bad moment. After Gano beat out Neil Rackers in 2012, Rackers was released and Billy Cundiff was snatched up a couple of days after he was released by Cleveland, which led to Gano nervously celebrating one day and being shipped out of town 15 hours later. It wasn't the right way to do business and it backfired on Shanahan, when Cundiff missed three field goals in one game (a last second win that he actually made the GWFG in) and a short attempt the next week.

Cundiff was released after just five regular season games, and the Redskins brought in Kai Forbath. A young, untested kicker with less leg strength but more accuracy than Gano. It's worked out for the most part for the Redskins in the field goal department, but it is absolutely fair to be concerned about his kickoffs. That's a big issue moving forward.

We'll get more into that as we look at the plan and how things might shake out this August. Danny Smith survived several head coaches and was extremely popular with players for his ruthless dedication to the little things that make a big difference.

Fans couldn't stand Smith, because they were looking for somebody to blame but this is the same fan base that hammered Kyle Shanahan in 2011 when he had nothing to work with and thought he was a genius in 2012, only to go back to despising him in 2013.

The fans were wrong then, and losing Smith to the Steelers was an enormous blow. Players did not buy into Keith Burns, and that led to the debacle of last year. Quite honestly, I didn't have a problem with the Redskins hiring Burns at first.

He came from being a successful assistant special teams coach for a very good group in Denver. He served that role for many years, and was a special teams ace for Shanahan on two Super Bowl Champion teams.

Who knew it could backfire in the way it did, but I don't get paid enough to recognize these issues before they arise. Shanahan didn't embrace Smith, and then when he left - the old "who you know, not what you know" mentality was in full effect.

I don't blame Burns for even half of the problems last year. He was over-matched, but the players quit on him and Shanahan gave him no real chance to succeed. That's the truth.

Which leads us to letting go of Lorenzo Alexander. Yes, he missed most of his first year in Arizona while suffering a foot fracture. Nobody knows if that would have happened with the Redskins, but losing the "One Man Gang" was a blow to the overall talent level, leadership and mentality that is needed for a good special teams unit.

The Redskins didn't value Alexander enough, and that was an absolute shame. Don't know how many times I have to say it, but companies that have this mentality will always suffer in short and long-term.

I bring up all of these issues because while the football world and fanbase focuses on Robert Griffin III says  and what DeSean Jackson might bring - I believe that the Redskins are poised for a significant turn-around on a unit that is often dismissed but is responsible for two or three games per year, for every team.

When Jay Gruden took over, and Bruce Allen became the official head of the Redskins, the team knew they had to improve many areas across the board on special teams.

It started with hiring Ben Kotwica. Kotwica's contract with the Jets had expired and the Redskins pounced on him.

Kotwica's coaching style has been documented in many ways. He is a tough, stern military man but after getting to spend some time away from Redskins Park with him - I found him to be incredibly caring and thoughtful.

That should translate well to players that you need to have run the wall for you.

Washington also infused the unit by adding Akeem Jordan, Adam Hayward, Darryl Sharpton, Andre Roberts, and rookies Trent Murphy, Ryan Grant and Bashaud Breeland to the potential core. Sav Rocca was released, and two new punters were brought in to compete. Kai Forbath is not safe either, as the Redskins drafted Zach Hocker in the seventh round.

That's the big picture, but to get truly better, we need to go back to one of my staples "Inside the Numbers"

Let's start with this. Last year, according to ProFootballFocus.com, the Redskins graded out as a cumulative minus 46.5 for the entire year. The next WORST team was a minus 22.6 (Buffalo).

Many in the media strongly disagree with many aspects of PFF's ranking systems, but there is no dispute as to how bad the ship was sinking all year.

To further illustrate the point, in 2012 under Danny Smith, the Redskins graded out a plus 14.1 and no team had a negative grade in the league according to the website.

The Denver Broncos have led the NFL in this area in two-out-of-the-last three years and were 2nd in the other year. That's the team that Keith Burns was the assistant special teams coach of until the end of 2012, so it wasn't all on Burns. Clearly, talent and commitment was an enormous issue.

Adam Hayward figures to be most of what the Redskins lost in Alexander. Overall, PFF had him at a plus 0.5 rating for 2013, and he graded out better on punt coverage. Overall, PFF had Hayward with eight solo special teams tackles including one in each of Tampa's last six games in 2013. More importantly, he missed only one tackle.

Hayward was not given a positive overall special teams grade by PFF since the 2009 season, so who truly knows but he has to be considered an upgrade from the disaster of last year.

Akeem Jordan graded out a plus 6.5 overall last year by PFF, and was credited with four solo tackles and no missed tackles for the Chiefs. The James Madison product had NINE solo special teams tackles in just five games in 2012 for the Philadelphia Eagles, as he graded out a plus 4.0 overall. 2011 was another good year for Jordan on teams, as he had a plus 3.0 overall and 11 solo tackles in nine games. Clearly a very good track record exists and if Jordan can improve in pass defense when he's on the field, that would make his signing a steal. Jordan has had two excellent pass breakups in the limited practices the media has been able to see.

Darryl Sharpton is another addition to the core, even though he had a negative overall grade according to PFF in 2013 on specials. Going back for a four year look, Sharpton has never been given a positive grade on special teams by PFF. Once again, every grade given is subjective and there is no pure science behind the process.

If Perry Riley continues his outstanding spring and Keenan Robinson stays healthy, Sharpton's biggest impact will have to come on specials, so it is imperative that the Redskins get the most out of him in that area.

Either way you look at it, that's three core additions to a unit that was desperately in need of an infusion of talent. There's no chance that the unit won't be significantly improved.

As for the additions of rookies Murphy, Grant and Breeland - who knows what they will bring but here's what I know. Two rookies last year, Brandon Jenkins and Bacarri Rambo did not seem to take a significant interest in being a big part of the unit and Washington got virtually nothing out of them. That won't happen this year. One thing you know you will at least get is much better effort and commitment.

I didn't include Lache Seastrunk as part of that group, because honestly I am not sure that he even makes the 53-man roster to Houston. I have no doubt the Redskins would like to keep him and develop him, but I believe they favor Chris Thompson's upside over Seastrunk if it comes down to one versus the other.

That being said, Thompson has to stay healthy which is a huge question.

If Seastrunk or Thompson is a part of the return mix, they would both add a desperate jolt of speed and my guess is that one of them will be the punt returner to start the year. Richard Crawford could work his way back into the mix, but he has to return from ACL surgery a year ago first before that's even a debate.

Thompson had seven punt returns for 36 yards last year, with a long return of 11 yards and one fair catch.

He averaged a meager 5.1 per return. If you take away the long return, he averaged just over four yards per opportunity. Not good enough.

As a kick returner, Thompson was (8-160) for an even 20.0 per return average. The problem is this: The Redskins didn't have anybody with higher than a 20.9 average on kickoffs and if you are five yards deep in your end zone, that's only an average return to the 15 yard line.

It's hard to ask the offense to constantly dig out of such porous real estate.

Enter Andre Roberts into the equation. He could easily hold down both spots if asked to do so, but I would not ask  him to do that. Especially because he will have a role as a wide receiver.

Roberts has said he could do both return jobs, but that if he had to pick one or the other, it would be kickoff return. I am all about trying to maximize and make comfortable, so this is not even a big issue in my mind.

Going back to his rookie season (2010) in Arizona, Roberts had 14 kick returns for 326 yards and a 23.3 per average. He also had 35 punt returns, with eight fair catches and 263 return yards for an average of 7.5.

His role was virtually reduced to nothing over the next three years, so that is the largest sample size that can be judged numerically.

Roberts needs to have one of these spots at minimum. Assuming he does, there's almost no doubt in my mind that he represents an upgrade from last year's combination of Niles Paul, Josh Morgan, Nick Williams and don't forget about the sneaky Adam Gettis (1-5).

Here's a bottom line reality. Redskins opponents averaged 22.3 per kickoff return last year, while Washington was an even 20.0 (last in NFL) and the punt return gap was hard to fathom. Opponents averaged 16.8 per return (worst in NFL) with three touchdowns, while the Redskins were at 6.4 per return. That's a unfathomable 10.4 yard per return differential.

As this chart  from FootballOutsiders.com shows, the Redskins average starting field position (line of scrimmage) per drive was the 25.35 yard line which was the worst in the NFL. Interestingly enough, the Jets were 2nd worst at 25.59 which is where Kotwica came from.

The Redskins defense also was put in a position to start defending from the league's worst average starting field position (31.72) and obviously a huge part of that is special teams returns allowed.  The Jets were 26th in the NFL in that area.

Another key part of where a defense starts defending from begins with the origin of the kick. The Redskins had the worst net punting average in the league at 33.8, as you would probably predict because of all of the returns. The league net average was 39.4.

However, Sav Rocca was certainly a part of the problem and the Redskins recognized that leading to his release. Rocca's gross average on 84 punts last years was 42.0 (29th in NFL), and he only had 26 punts downed inside-the-20.

I believe that Robert Malone will win the Redskins punting job, as he has shown a consistently good leg in practices and because he does have a Jets connection with Kotwica.

The final element to a good special teams unit is what most would consider the most important piece of the puzzle. The placekicker. Kai Forbath is the incumbent, but Hocker will certainly make Richmond and the preseason interesting. Sure, Forbath is pretty reliable in terms of field goal accuracy and that is very important, but while he is accurate - his leg strength leaves more than enough to be desired.

Forbath had a league worst net kickoff average at 39.38, with the league average at 42.75 and the league leader Greg Zuerlein of St. Louis at 45.29, while also having the 2nd fewest touchbacks at 14. Keeping in mind, Forbath had the least amount of kickoffs in the league (57), which magnifies that number quite a bit in my eyes.

His touchback percentage is 24.6 %, compared to the league average percentage of 48.8 %. Just for further comparison, Gano's mark in Carolina was 78.8 %.

Forbath has been very good in terms of field goal accuracy, despite being inconsistent and hurt early in 2013. He was 18-22 in 2013, while missing three of his field goal attempts from 40 plus yards.

I hate to always be considered negative, but something about this bothers me and I really wonder if Forbath could knock down a game winning 48 yard field goal in the frigid cold of Chicago or Green Bay in the playoffs if asked to do so.

It would be a risk for the Redskins to go with a rookie placekicker in Hocker over Forbath, but let's be honest - Forbath was a rookie and untested when the Redskins signed him in 2012 and that worked out just fine.

Hocker wasn't selected in the seventh round because the Redskins don't have high hopes that he can not only push, but very possibly beat out Forbath.

Per NFL.com, "in 2013, hit on 13 of 15 FGs with a career long of 54 and all 28 PATs, and kicked off 50 times for a 63.2-yard average with 34 touchbacks." Hocker struggled accuracy wise in field goals in 2012, so it was important that he had a big senior year.

Here's what jumps out to me. 50 kickoffs and 34 touchbacks in 2013. 58 times with 39 touchbacks in 2012. In 2011, Hocker kicked off 93 times for a 67.8-yard average with 40 touchbacks. That's a total of 201 kickoffs over the last three years, and 113 touchbacks or 56.1 % of his opportunities. Hocker's last two years were under the new rules the NCAA adopted for 2012  with the starting line at the 35. Hocker's percentage the last two years is 67.5 % or (73-108).

I think Hocker with a continued strong showing in camp and preseason games will win  the job over Forbath, which would make a lot of fans/media scratch their head - but I believe the argument is much easier to make after we went "Inside the Numbers."

The bottom line is this - the Redskins special teams unit will be significantly better this year just because there is no way they can be anywhere near as bad. If they a middle of the pack unit, they might win one or two games because of that. If they can finish in the top 25 % of the league (8th or higher) that's good for two or three wins that largely come from the unit making a huge play or plays.

I'm going to say they are a middle of the road unit, with some frustrating moments but a significantly  better group than the disaster of last year.

Chris Russell - SFTheRooster@Yahoo.com - www.twitter.com/russellmania980



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