Monday, March 7, 2011

Redskins position review: Special teams

At long last, the final position review as we attempt to recover from the 2010 season. The story thus far:

Defensive line
Defensive backs
Offensive line
Running backs
Tight ends
Wide receivers

I was skeptical of Banks at first. My preference is generally for punt returners who know their job is to gain enough yards to shave one first down off of what the offense needs in order to score. I have little patience for returners who settle for minimal or nonexistent games while trying to break a big return instead of taking the adequate one that is available.

But Banks is different, or at least he was at the beginning of the year. He struck the difficult balance between constantly pushing the ball downfield and setting up his blockers, and had nice vision for the proper holes and a sense of timing for when to turn on the jets. He certainly seems like the real deal. After his knee surgery these good habits seemed to slip – he was much less decisive and there were more horizontal yards while waiting for the big hole to develop. I hope this was a result of lack of confidence in his knee and the fact that with the season slipping away he may have felt more pressured to make the big play. If he’s going to fulfill his potential, it’s important that we see more of the early season Banks.

And one more thing – ball security is a serious issue. After problems in preseason he managed not to lose a fumble during the regular season, but he did fumble twice and there were times that the ball was bounced out as he hit the ground and others that he juggled it on the way down after taking a hit. I like Banks but he scares me every time, and at some point I feel like a critical fumble is going to kill us.


Don’t roll your eyes at me – this is a big deal. I am of the opinion that the defense can be made at least competitive with only a couple of personnel moves. The offense, however, is more than one offseason away. If the Redskins are going to be stuck as a defense-first team, then obviously the field position game will be critical.

But Josh Bidwell, Hunter Smith, and Sam Paulescu were uniformly disastrous last year. Hang time is at least as important as punt distance if not more-so, and you generally expect your punter to at least exceed 4.3 seconds or so. But this crew very rarely even got to 4. Obviously this means that too many of the punts could get returned. Another year of 3 ½ second line drive punts will mean playing the entire season on the Redskins’ side of the field.

Presumably, none of the three punters from last year will show up in camp in 2011. At least hopefully not. The nature of punters is that whatever options are brought in next year will be young guns looking to establish themselves, or fringe names who have been bouncing around the league, as the few guys who manage to become big names at that position are generally kept around (for example by most ardent punter-crush, the Ravens Sam Koch, was just locked up with a 5 year contract). But while the search for a punter won’t get a lot of headlines, it will actually be a pretty important part of the Redskins offseason.


At the risk of being accused of making excuses for Graham, it bears mentioning that he had an inordinate number of kicks in windy, wet, or generally difficult conditions; he worked with a shaky long snapper and three different holders; and (early on at least when Shanahan still had some confidence in him) was asked to make a lot of long kicks due to his leg strength. Also, one was blocked, and the game winning 52 yarder against Houston was made once, then erased from the records by one of those annoying last second time out calls. As eager as people may be to tar and feather Gano, those are all real variable that affect results. These factors, combined with some simple random variance, may – and I emphasize may – be enough to account for his terribly low field goal percentage.

Field goal percentage is among the worst stats in football. It does not account for the relative distance of kicks, so missing a 50 yarder hurts just as much as a 20 yarder. And kickers with strong legs are asked to make more long kicks, obviously, thus driving up their average level of difficulty. And so on and so forth. Ask any of the math guys – Football Outsiders, Advanced NFL Stats, whoever – and they’ll tell you that individual kickers show no year to year correlation in their field goal percentage.

One skill that does tend to be consistent is kickoff distance. And results from kickoffs do show up on the scoreboard, just not with the immediate gratification (or dismay) of field goal attempts. In fact, Brian Burke of ANFLS goes so far as to have jokingly suggest that rather than pondering whether to tie up an extra roster spot on a kickoff specialist, teams should really wonder if it’s worthwhile carrying a field goal specialist.

The fact is Gano’s leg strength by itself dictates against washing him out just yet. As mentioned earlier, winning the field position game is probably going to be important to keeping the Redskins in games. Gano’s consistently strong kickoff leg, combines with Danny Smith’s strong coverage units, will be important in giving the (hopefully improved) defense long fields to work on.

One note on the kickoffs: the Redskins had Gano engage in an awful lot of directional kicking, which helped the coverage team by pinning the runner to the sideline and of course funneled them into some very satisfying hits by Lorenzo Alexander and Mike Sellers. But many of those kicks would have been touchbacks if straightened out, so I wonder if that’s really the best strategy when your kicker gets such good distance.

Obviously we can’t go on having this many missed field goals, and if has a couple misses in preseason (if there is one) then we can expect him to be dispatched quite rapidly. I can't even tell you that he isn't a bad field goal kicker, only that last year's indisputably horrible results do not say so conclusively. But he should still be given a chance to prove himself, however short the leash may need to be.

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