It seems like even those of us who take our football very seriously have a pretty big gap in our knowledge when it comes to special teams, despite the fact that it can have a huge impact on the outcomes of games. Fortunately former Redskin Brian Mitchell, who just happens to be among the best kickoff and punt returners in NFL history, was kind enough to take the time to answer a number of questions about special teams play.
Staying Medium: During your Redskins career, who do you think was your best and most consistent blocker on returns?
Brian Mitchell: James Jenkins, Ravin Caldwell, William Bell, and Tré Johnson
SM: Are there set keys that cause a punt returner to decide to call for a fair catch, or is it more a gut feel as to whether or not it is worth attempting a return?
BM: There are set keys like field position, wind, hang time, and the situation of the game.
SM: What are your thoughts on directional kickoffs? Is it worth sacrificing the kick distance to give the coverage unit less of the field to cover, or would teams be better off straightening out the kicks and improving the odds of forcing a touchback?
BM: It's great when the kicker is consistent because it causes the returner to move around which can throw off the timing of the return.
SM: Lorenzo Alexander’s play on the coverage units has garnered acclaim among Redskins fans and the media. Is there any other current Redskin who you think should get more attention for his special teams play?
BM: Mike Sellers, Byron Westbrook, and H.B. Blades
SM: Why is it so rare for a player to excel at returning both punts and kickoffs?
BM: It's sometimes because of the mindset of the coach, but I think overall it's the fear of some to return punts. Kickoffs gives one a lot more space between the coverage unit and returner.
SM: Other than the obvious traits of speed and elusiveness, what are the skills a player needs to make a good kick returner?
BM: He needs to be fearless, durable, instinctive, and be a GREAT decision maker.
SM: To your eye, has the abolition of the wedge (although the enforcement seems extremely spotty) significantly altered the way returners run back kickoffs?
BM: Not at all. I think it's more affective for the returner. Without all of those big slow guys in front of the returner, it gives him better vision and he can get to top speed quicker.
SM: What is your evaluation of Brandon Banks as a returner? Is he overrated by fans or is he the real deal?.
BM: I love Brandon Banks as a returner. He's been very successful at every level which speaks for itself. I feel he's very instinctive, fast, elusive, and has a knack for the big play. He's different than I was because my game was more power, and his is more speed. Yes, I feel that he is the REAL DEAL.
SM: If you could change one rule related to special teams play, what would it be?
BM: I would make it to where holding calls or blocks in the back that are nowhere near the play won't be called.
SM: If you were a GM and had to choose between a punter with a strong leg but a propensity for line drives and another who struggled with distance but got consistent hang time, which would you choose?
BM: I would choose the more consistent hang time punter. Line drives gets a team in more trouble. Chris Mohr, former kicker of the Bills, is a great example of that.
SM: You’re still a GM – would you rather have a returner who is inconsistent but a “home run threat,” or one who consistently gets decent returns (say, to near the 30 on kickoffs or 8-12 yards on punts) but who never breaks a big one?
BM: I would rather the more consistent returner because he will eventually break one because he does everything right. The inconsistent returner will cost you eventually.
SM: Who was the best NFL punter during your career?
BM: Tie between Sean Landeta, Jeff Feagles, and Chris Mohr
SM: Were there particular opposing teams or special teams coaches who you thought consistently made your job as a returner harder? Did you make adjustments to your approach based on opponent or did you attack all opposing coverage units the same way?
BM: Pete Rodriguez, Dallas's special teams Coach Alvazano, and Buffalo's special teams coach from my era. I basically attacked all of them the same. I just tried to be consistent and patient with my decisions.
SM: Why are blocked kicks so incredibly rare? Should NFL special teams coaches be more imaginative in devising ways to create blocks?
BM: They are rare because of the consistent blocking, and the fact that coaches know that punters can be hurt. They don't want the retaliation in case they hurt a punter, but I feel they can still be more aggressive and imaginative.
SM: What techniques do gunners use to get a clean release? Is it similar to a receiver trying to beat press coverage or is it a totally different approach?
BM: It's very similar, but entails two people. They use some of the same skills like quickness, speed, and they also use those two guys against each other.
SM: Other than a returner, who has the most important job on a kickoff return unit? Same question for the punt return unit.
BM: The lead blocker and also the person who sets the point of the return.
SM: Is there anything else about special teams play that the average fan wouldn’t know but you think we should?
BM: Yes, special teams is just as important as offense and defense. Many think special teams consists of crazy guys that aren't starters, but many are starters and very skillful. We meet and practice as much as the other two phases, but we deal with massive chunks of yardage. Finally, I feel that special teams doesn't get the credit it deserves.