Redskins.com continues its three-part series taking a look back at last season. Today: the special teams.
Tacos for tackles. Sounds catchy, doesn't it? No, it's not some type of international cuisine promotion. Last season, it was the reward for exceptional play on the Redskins' special teams units, the result of a little friendly competition among teammates.
Regardless of the motives, Washington's special teams units showed progress under coordinator Danny Smith. Kickoff and punt returns came under scrutiny late in the season as a result of several long returns, particularly by Pittsburgh Steelers speedster Antwaan Randle El, but overall the special teams units were solid.
The best game for special teams as a whole was the Week 9 game at Detroit, a 17-10 Redskins win. Wide receiver James Thrash was named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week for his efforts in the victory. Things turned in the Redskins' favor after a punt blocked by wideout Taylor Jacobs was returned by cornerback Walt Harris for a 13-yard touchdown.
"We just came out with a different energy on special teams," said linebacker Khary Campbell, who had 20 special teams tackles. "Coach Gibbs always talked about special teams setting the tone. I think we help set the tone of the game on special teams. We just played the field position battle in that game."
Unfortunately for the Redskins, Campbell suffered a knee injury the next week, in the team's 17-10 setback to Cincinnati at FedExField, and was sidelined for the duration of the season.
Along with Campbell, Thrash, Mike Sellers and Ade Jimoh have led the Redskins' coverage units this season. Those four established themselves as the top tacklers on special teams.
Campbell, Sellers and Jimoh each allowed that there existed a friendly competition among the group that added a little extra motivation on kick and punt coverages.
"It's a big competition," Sellers said, laughing. "Some people get free tacos. I won't say any names."
More seriously, Campbell said that solid special teams' play was a focus all season, especially considering the difficulty the Redskins' offense had scoring points.
"We all need each other out there on special teams," Campbell said. "It's not like one guy is really making more tackles than the others. We're all in on tackles. We're making plays together, as a unit."
Campbell's outstanding special teams play this season comes as no surprise. He spent the last two seasons, his first two in the league, honing his skills on the New York Jets' special teams. He was signed this offseason to play a key role on special teams. Campbell performed admirably until going down versus the Bengals.
Sellers has also lived up to expectations that he would contribute on special teams. He made 39 tackles on Redskins' special teams from 1998-2000 and had 29 last season.
"Special teams got me into the league," Sellers said. "Myself and James Thrash, when we played here before, that's how we made the team, basically. We take a lot of pride in it."
Thrash led the Redskins with 31 special teams tackles. His spectacular performance against Detroit included three punts downed near the goal line. He also had a 43-yard kickoff return, two punt returns for 46 yards and led the special teams with four tackles.
"Any opportunity I get to be on the field, I try to do whatever I can and whatever it takes to help the team win," Thrash said.
Part of playing well on special teams, according to several players, includes having a different mindset than that of a defensive or offensive player.
"You have to play with no fear," Sellers said. "You run down there knowing that you could be blindsided. It's just reckless abandon. You just run down there and make plays."
Added Campbell: "The mindset is like you only get one play. On that one play, you have to do what you're assigned to do or it could be a big play. You try to run full speed but do a job within a team context."
Head coach Joe Gibbs would certainly agree.
"I have always said that special teams are the heart of your team because they are most of time guys who are not going to be high-profile guys that get a lot of attention," Gibbs said. "Although the good thing about today's media, TV and instant replay, the appreciation for special teams play has soared.
"If you want a real test of courage, you run 40 yards and attack a wedge or take a punt with 10 guys coming after you and trying to kill you. I think it's a real true measure of courage. It takes a special kind of guy to cover a kickoff, run back a punt, or some of the unsung things like blocking on field goal protection. They are also some of the most valuable things we do."
The Redskins used several return specialists through the course of the season, starting with Chad Morton. But Morton suffered a knee injury in the Week 8 game against the Green Bay Packers and was lost for the season. Morton finished the season with a 22.4-yard return average on 25 kickoffs--with a long of 49 yards--and a 6.2-yard return average on 13 punts.
In Morton's absence, Thrash, Ladell Betts and Antonio Brown stepped in. Each had their moments. Thrash had the 43-yard kickoff return against the Lions and Betts had a 70-yard kickoff return against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Brown flashed remarkable speed late in the season, returning a kickoff 66 yards in the season finale against Minnesota. He ended up leading the team with an 8.9-yard punt return average.
"I think Antonio gave us a real burst in there," Gibbs said. "He is probably the fastest guy on the tam.
Among the specialists, punter Tom Tupa was among the Redskins' top acquisitions last year. With the Redskins emphasizing field position throughout the course of the season, Tupa's booming punts pinned opposing offenses deep in their own territory and allowed the third-ranked defense to dominate. Simply put, not many offenses were going to drive the length of the field against the Redskins' defense.
Tupa punted 103 times last season for a 44.1-yard average, third-best in the league. He had 30 punts placed inside the 20, also third-best in the league. For his efforst, Tupa earned a nod as a second alternate to the Pro Bowl.
"He exchanged tons of field position," Gibbs said. "I feel like if you can punt the ball like that and cover it, that's a big part of keeping offenses from going a long ways. With our defense, it was tough for offenses to go a long way and score points. So Tom has been absolutely outstanding and impressive. He is as good as I've seen."
Kicker John Hall struggled through injuries in his second season in Washington. He had hamstring injuries early in the season, then was sidelined for five games midseason with a groin injury. He also sat out the final three games with a torn right quad injury. For the season, Hall was 8-of-11 on field goal attempts, but just 1-of-4 from 40 yards or more.
"[His injuries] have been kind of a wild set of circumstances, but hopefully we'll get him back healthy," Gibbs said. "He's probably one of the hardest guys I've been around as far as being well-trained. He stretches and does every single thing you could do, so why he has had injuries this year is something you don't know."
The Redskins first brought in Ola Kimrin, direct from Sweden. Kimrin nailed two field goals in his first NFL game to help the Redskins win 13-10 at Chicago in Week 6. Overall, Kimrin was 6-of-10 on field goals for the season.
For the final three games, the Redskins signed Jeff Chandler, a two-year veteran who had kicked for San Francisco and Carolina in his career. In his first game, Chandler connected on four field goals against the 49ers to help the Redskins win 26-16 in Week 15.
All season long, the special teams were held together by Smith, who was a member of assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams' staff the previous three seasons in Buffalo. Smith is well known for his fiery, enthusiastic nature, which has endeared him to his players.
"He brings that energy to the practice field and he's really passionate about what he does," Campbell said.
What success the Redskins had on special teams last season actually had its roots in the July and August practices at Redskin Park, Smith would argue. He puts it this way: "We had these guys running all over the place this summer. This season, some of their hard work really showed up."