When Niles Paul’s kickoff return fumble was almost recovered by a David Reed of the Baltimore Ravens, it almost cost the Washington Redskins the Dec. 9 game and potentially their chance to make the playoffs. The tight end was inconsolable.
But the Redskins still won that day and haven’t lost since, aided in their regular-season finale by Paul’s 48-yard return in the fourth quarter.
“We needed a big return,” coach Mike Shanahan said. “It was a three-point game and he takes us out to midfield. It’s the difference between winning and losing. He broke a couple of tackles there and that’s what we were hoping he would do.”
Paul took over kickoff return duties when Brandon Banks was made inactive in early December. Since, it has been a bit of a mixed bag, considering his fumble and then the longest return by a tight end in 31 years.
But there’s little doubt Paul has been an upgrade at the position over Banks, whose desire to zig and zag often cost him yards. Paul, who converted to tight end from wide receiver before this season, needed some time to adjust to his new role.
“I’ve done kickoff returns all throughout college, but I’ve never done them consistently in the NFL until these last couple weeks,” Paul said. “So I think it was all about me finding myself out there and being able to adjust to the NFL level. It was like I was a rookie all over again.”
The difference between doing it at Nebraska and for the Redskins is simple.
“It’s extremely different because you’ve got 11 athletic guys. College, sometimes they don’t put the most athletic guys on kickoffs,” he said. “But you’ve got 11 good players out there and you’ve just got to be decisive and you’ve got to be fast.”
Paul isn’t a burner by any means. He put on weight to make the switch to tight end, but with his style of running straight ahead, some extra strength can’t hurt.
Still, he wasn’t preparing to return kicks this season.
“Honestly I didn’t foresee it coming, but they gave me an opportunity and I told them I’ve got to make them right,” Paul said. “I’m grateful and I’m blessed that Danny Smith has given me the opportunity to do that and has continued to trust me week in and week out.”
The 23-year-old didn’t consider his 48-yard return against the Dallas Cowboys a way of making up for the fumble weeks earlier.
“No, not at all,” he said. “I’ll feel retribution if I take one to the crib.”