Talking to Brandon Banks, the travel-sized Washington Redskin, you can see the uncertainty in his face, hear it in his voice. He knows he has to contribute as a receiver this year if he wants earn a spot on the final roster. Being "just" a returner — a one-dimensional player — is no longer enough. It's a luxury Mike Shanahan doesn't feel he can afford, not when he's worried about depth in so many places.
You can't say the Redskins aren't giving Banks a chance to show what he can do at wideout, either. In the preseason opener Thursday night at Buffalo, Rex Grossman and Kirk Cousins threw nine passes in his direction. To put this in perspective, only one receiver in the league had more balls tossed toward him last week than Brandon did. Alas, he caught just two of them — for a grand total of seven yards — and, frankly, didn't do much to improve his stock.
Yes, some of the passes were off target, but there also were times when Banks didn't create enough space for himself to make the grab. Clearly, his size (5-foot-7, 150 pounds), which can be an asset in the return game by rendering him almost invisible, works against him as a wideout because he's invariably battling bigger defenders, guys with more reach.
"I had a lot of opportunities [against the Bills]," he said, "but I couldn't make the best of some of them. Rex was kinda off a little bit. I feel like any time I get the ball in my hands I can help this team."
You have to wonder if Banks' best shot at making a case for himself already has come and gone. With all the other players the coaches have to look at, all the other things the offense has to work on, it's hard to imagine the quarterbacks targeting him nine times (or anything close) in any of the remaining preseason games. Indeed, the only way for him to carve a roster spot for himself might be to do something spectacular in the return game, something that causes Shanahan to rethink his planning and say to himself, "I can't cut this kid. He's too much of a playmaker."
That's harder to do, though, since last year's rule change, which — to address the concussion issue — moved up kickoffs to the 35-yard line. It's no longer the Kick Returner's World it was when the ball was booted from the 30. There are many more touchbacks now, many more "Should I or shouldn't I?" decisions for returners standing deep in the end zone.
There's no doubt about it, the new rule has diminished the importance of the kickoff return — and by extension, the importance of the returner. And few players have felt its impact more than Banks, whose contributions are essentially limited to special teams. In fact, it might ultimately be what costs him his job. Think about that: He might get driven out of the league by a rule change.
Granted, he was slowed by a knee injury last season, but he also had trouble — as a lot of returners did — adjusting to the New Order. Consider: Sixteen times, an average of once a game, he ran a kickoff out of the end zone and didn't make it to the 20-yard line. Five times he didn't make it past the 15.
Danny Smith, the special teams coach, talked about that last week, about how return guys have had to develop a different mindset. A 25-yard runback, for instance, might sound good, but if it only gets you to the 18, wouldn't you have been better off taking a knee? Players, Smith said, sometimes get preoccupied with their own stats and forget that "ultimately it's about field position and where you put the ball in play. It's the decision-making: when to bring it [out] and when not to.
"There are a lot of things that go into that. It's not [just] a matter of if the ball is seven yards deep [in the end zone], eight yards deep. Who are you playing? What's the situation? Are you home or away?"
After all, when you're on the road, the crowd can come into play if a return leaves you backed up in your own end. Suddenly it's harder to hear signals and "damn if we don't get a tackle that jumps early," Smith said. "So it's important whether it's home or away. I thought at times we did a good job at that last year, and I thought at times we did a bad job."
In 2010, as an undrafted rookie, Banks was one of only two players in the NFL with 1,000 yards on kickoff returns and 400 on punt returns. He made big plays. He was a revelation, one of the best stories in an otherwise forgettable season. But last year, his kickoff-return average dropped from 25.1 to 23.8, which didn't even put him in the top 20, and his punt-return average fell off, too (11.3/9.1). It was the kind of dime-a-dozen season that makes a fellow expendable.
"I'm hoping there's a chance they change the rule back [to what it was]," he said. "I want there to be a chance."
In the meantime, though, he has to reinvent himself as a returner-receiver, no easy task. And that time may be running short.
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