Niles Paul strolled into the Washington Redskins' locker room on Monday afternoon wearing a red-and-black digital camouflage T-shirt so bright it practically begged for questions.
When those questions came, the tight end said the shirt was a reward for excellence on special teams. When asked what excellence he could be referring to, Paul dragged a wooden stool closer to his locker, sat down and sighed.
"Yeah, I think that a lot of people are kind of making a big deal out of something that's not there right now," Paul said.
On Thursday, in a 34-27 road loss to the Minnesota Vikings, the Redskins were humiliated by a botched fake punt attempt in the third quarter that was negated by a penalty, then were left with an 11-yard net gain on the ensuing try.
It was the fifth time in six games the Redskins have had a miscue on special teams, and Paul, understandably, was loathe to address such concerns. After all, it was a month ago that players and coaches alike pledged improvement in that phase of the game, and the results haven't been evident.
That is, evident to those outside the locker room, Paul insisted.
"I mean, I definitely see a different special teams unit than was out there in the first couple games," Paul said. "It's an entirely different atmosphere. You've got 11 guys hunting, hungry, wanting to make plays."
The Redskins' punt coverage unit allowed a touchdown in three consecutive games earlier this season, first when the Oakland Raiders recovered a blocked punt in the end zone and later when the Dallas Cowboys' Dwayne Harris and the Chicago Bears' Devin Hester had returns of 86 and 81 yards, respectively.
That led to the decision to have kicker Kai Forbath and punter Sav Rocca kick away from returners in the following three games, sacrificing less favorable field position for any larger gains.
The units escaped the game against the Denver Broncos on Oct. 27 without any major flaws — that is, depending on how one considers a 45-21 loss — before a pair of field goals were blocked in an overtime victory over the San Diego Chargers at home on Nov. 3.
Then came Thursday, when the Redskins attempted a fake punt for the first time under coach Mike Shanahan. A throw from punter Sav Rocca to Paul fell woefully short when Paul didn't know the pass was coming, but the team was seemingly saved the embarrassment of giving the Vikings the ball at the Redskins' own 35-yard line when cornerback Jerome Murphy, the gunner opposite Paul, was called for illegal motion.
Rocca, given a do-over, punted the ball only 46 yards, where it was returned by Vikings cornerback Marcus Sherels for 20 yards. To make matters worse, Redskins fullback Darrel Young was flagged for unnecessary roughness when the play was over for shoving cornerback Shaun Prater in the face, allowing Minnesota to take over at the Redskins' 41-yard line.
Strong safety Reed Doughty, the de facto special teams captain during the early portion of the season, tapped his helmet on the field to signal for the fake punt. He said Monday that the decision to do so was a "miscommunication" and he took responsibility for it, but he declined to elaborate on the circumstances.
"I think, on a whole, as a special teams unit, I feel a lot better than I did at the beginning of the year," Doughty said, wearing the same red-and-black special teams T-shirt. "I feel like we're playing faster. I feel like guys are making plays. I feel like we're getting off blocks and guys are making some good plays. We made some strides in the return game last week a little bit, but again, when you have a miscue every game, it doesn't shed good light on us as special teams players."
The problems aren't just limited to the punt coverage unit. The Redskins have struggled to gain yards themselves, ranking 29th in punt return yards and 31st in kickoff return yards entering the Monday night game.
Paul, who finished last year as the kickoff returner, replaced receiver Joshua Morgan as the kickoff returner on Thursday and gained 74 yards on three opportunities against the Vikings.
"If somebody takes advantages of their opportunities, then they'll stay there," Shanahan said Friday. "If they don't, then we'll try somebody else. One of the reasons why we put Niles back there [was] to give him a little shot, and he took advantage of that opportunity."
Paul, who has succeeded Doughty as the special teams captain the last four games, said the yardage differential in all return games demonstrate improvement. The sample size isn't large enough to evaluate anywhere but on kickoff coverage, where the Redskins were allowing 26.4 yards per return in the first five games, including a 90-yarder by Harris, but have allowed 18.3 yards per return in the last four.
"I mean, it's a process," Doughty said. "It's one of those things that not everything is going to always go your way, but as long as you're putting in that process of focusing on detail and paying attention to everything you can do, hopefully, those results will come."
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