ASHBURN, Va. – Given the tone in the locker room this week, the Washington Redskins perhaps ought to tap owner Dan Snyder's marketing expertise to come up with a slogan to sell their younger players on the value of special teams.
Something like: "Punt coverage — it's super cool!"
Niles Paul would have been in the target audience for such a campaign after the Redskins drafted him two years ago. Now he's one of those doing the selling.
"When I first got in the league, I didn't really see special teams as my future," said receiver-turned-tight end from Nebraska, "because you're coming from somewhere where you're the man. I didn't play special teams at all in college until I got here. But I had guys like (Lorenzo Alexander and Reed Doughty) show me that being out here is a privilege. It's like being a starter on a team.
"We lost focus on that part. Some people look at special teams as just another phase of the game, but it's an important phase that we need better effort from everybody across the board."
Alexander, the heart and soul of the special teams units, is gone, having signed as a free agent with the Arizona Cardinals. In fact, seven of the nine top special teams tacklers on the 2012 Redskins aren't around anymore because of departures or injuries.
Also absent is longtime special teams coordinator Danny Smith, who took a similar job with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was replaced by Keith Burns, who's never been in charge of special teams before.
There have therefore been growing pains that have been painful to watch. The coverage and return units rank anywhere from 27th to last in the NFL. There's been a blocked punt and too many penalties. Dallas' Dwayne Harris had an 86-yard punt return and a 90-yard kickoff return in a 31-16 loss that dropped the Redskins to 1-4.
"What happened on Sunday," Paul said, "was a wakeup call and unacceptable and embarrassing as a unit."
Doughty also called the performance embarrassing, and it unearthed problems that need to be addressed before Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears (4-2) and record-setting return man Devin Hester.
"Anytime you give up a big return," Doughty said, "everybody's chomping at the bit to play you."
Doughty said the Redskins special teams are in flux. There used to be a core of five or six dedicated players that were on the field every time there was a kickoff or a punt. Now there are players moving in and out, some of them who are still getting the hang of their roles. He's planning a special video session for Friday to educate the young players.
"Some of the young guys maybe don't know how to watch special teams," Doughty said. "I'm not saying they're not watching it, but just to get them to understand what we're looking for, and really when you do that as a group it helps you."
Coach Mike Shanahan pointedly said this week that "Lorenzo Alexander's not going to show up" and called for a leader to step up and replace the leadership vacuum. Doughty and Paul sound as if they're trying to answer the coach's challenge.
But that also leaves in question the role of Burns, who has his own way to doing things, both philosophically and schematically. Not to mention his unenviable task of following in the footsteps of Smith, who had an out-sized personality and was very popular with his players.
"You go from Danny who's been here Lord knows how long to a new guy," Paul said. "And everybody loved Danny. Everybody trusted Danny. Now we've got to go to a new special teams coach, and we have to trust in him."
Shanahan gave Burns a vote of confidence this week but declined to make him available for interviews. He said Burns will instead meet with reporters on Monday.
Regardless, Doughty said the adjustment to Burns shouldn't be used as an excuse.
"At the end of the day, it's the player's responsibility to tackle the guy with the football," he said, "and how we get there really makes no difference."
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