Danny Smith is a name that’s only familiar to the most ardent Washington Redskins fan. Smith is a veteran special teams coach that usually fielded one of the NFL’s top units. Smith’s tenure in Washington began in 2004, and his special teams units ranked in the top five in kick return yardage allowed in two out of the past three years in Washington. Simply put, Smith’s units have performed well during an era in Redskins’ football where change (and chaos) was constant.
Smith left the Redskins to sign with the Pittsburgh Steelers before the 2013 season. The Redskins’ special teams unit is now coached by Keith Burns, who played 13 years in the NFL. Burns spent 10 years playing linebacker with the Denver Broncos under current Redskins’ head coach Mike Shanahan. Redskins fans hope Burns, in his first year as special teams’ coach, will pick up where Smith left off regarding efficient special teams play.
Those hoping for a seamless special teams transition from Smith to Burns have been disappointed. Washington’s punt and kick return game have been abysmal, with the Redskins ranking 31st in the NFL in kickoff return average, as well as ranking 28th in punt return yards. Those statistics indicate that there’s pressure on the Washington offense to sustain long scoring drives on a frequent basis, which is asking a lot.
The Redskins’ kick return coverage units are even more problematic. Washington’s special teams allowed Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dwayne Harris (above, with football) to gain 222 yards on kick returns in the Cowboys’ 31-16 Week 6 victory over the Redskins. Harris’ total yardage includes an 86 yard punt return for a touchdown, a play which Burns ironically incurred an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for inadvertent contact with an official on the sidelines. Talk about adding insult to injury.
Making matters worse, Washington surrendered another punt return for a touchdown Week 7 against the Chicago Bears. For reasons only known to him, punter Sav Rocca decided to kick to Bears punt returner Devin Hester, one of the greatest punt returners in NFL history. That was akin to tying a steak around your waist and walking past three hungry pit bulls. To no one’s surprise, Hester returned Rocca’s punt 81 yards for a touchdown.
The Redskins aren’t good enough to overcome such deficiencies on special teams. The unit is missing special teams stalwarts Lorenzo Alexander and Brandon Banks. Alexander was excellent covering kicks, routinely leading Washington in special teams tackles. The diminutive Banks was efficient as a kick returner. He averaged 24 yards per return during his NFL career and was always a threat to return a kick for a touchdown, even though he has only one in his career.
Alexander signed with the Arizona Cardinals before this season began. Banks fell out of favor with Shanahan long ago, which resulted in his departure from Washington. Banks is currently a free agent who could solidify the Redskins’ return game. It’s unlikely that Shanahan will bring Banks back, as he is apparently satisfied with the “job” that rookie running back Chris Thompson and demoted wide receiver Joshua Morgan are doing returning kicks.
The Redskins have declined to make Burns available for the media. It’s probably a wise decision, considering the circumstances. In any event, if the Redskins want to turn their season around, their special teams unit must improve in all phases. If they can’t, Burns’ tenure as special teams coach could be one and done.