ARLINGTON, Texas — Darrel Young stood in a corner of the locker room underneath AT&T Stadium that reeked of sweat, stale air and defeat. Every few seconds, he slapped the side of his navy suit for emphasis because the words, really, didn’t seem adequate to describe the Redskins not-so-special teams.
“It’s a failure,” he said. “It’s an F.”
The depth of that failure had been obscured by the season’s miserable start. Amid the litany of other problems and breakdowns and questions without easy answers, from Robert Griffin III’s all-consuming knee to a catalogue of defensive foibles, that pesky third phase of the game slipped into the background.
Until Sunday night.
In front of a national television audience against the Cowboys, the long-winded promises of extra work and improvement turned into a 60-minute demonstration of how not to play special teams.
The festering sore finally became impossible to ignore.
Not after five — yes, five — penalties by the group in the 31-16 loss. The mistakes were so total, so thorough that even first-year special teams coach Keith Burns couldn’t stay out of the way. He drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct flag for colliding with an official during Dwayne Harris‘ 86-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter.
Yes, Harris. The Cowboys return man turned full-time Redskins tormentor touched the ball four times. Those jaunts through flailing tacklers and gaping holes accounted for 222 yards.
On the play before the second-quarter punt return, an illegal alignment penalty on the Redskins wiped out a punt downed at the 15-yard line. That gift-wrapped another opportunity for Harris, who promptly jolted down the field in front of the Redskins sideline and Burns‘ inadvertent tackling effort. Special teams stalwart Bryan Kehl felt something pop in his knee on the play. Maybe he would’ve pulled Harris down. The long return’s insult led, quite literally, to injury.
There weren’t answers. Not easy ones, at least, amid the rubble of the locker room of a team that sank to 1-4. Not a schematic breakdown to fix or a personnel change to make. Perhaps that’s the most unsettling part, how basic the beat-up group’s problems really are.
Young searched aloud for the answer, as if he hoped to stumble upon the solution amid the wads of used-up training tape and duffel bags spilling gear onto the carpet and red numbers on a wall clock ticking down the minutes left in the locker room. The group has been bedraggled by head-scratching penalties this season, brushes with disaster or, in the case of the blocked punt against the Raiders, full-on encounters with the worst-case scenario.
“We spend enough time practicing,” Young said. “We do the little things right. I guess we’re just not executing.”
A few minutes later: “This just sucks, man” and “It’s embarrassing to us” and “I played terrible.”
The problems were methodical. Consistent. Almost expected. No penalties on a return seemed a perverse moral victory. Those returns never amounted to much for the Redskins, continuing the season’s impotent theme.
The days of much-maligned ex-special teams coach Danny Smith — remember him? — who took a job with the Steelers during the offseason seemed downright competitive compared to this.
Leaving struggling rookie returner Chris Thompson inactive Sunday didn’t help. Neither did sending veteran Josh Morgan back to return the first punts of his professional career.
All the shuffling added up to seven kickoff and punt returns by the Redskins for 46 measly yards.
“It’s such a different phase of football than offense and defense,” Kehl said. “It’s just such a hodgepodge. This guy’s there. This guy’s here. It’s a free for all, almost, and when something big like that happens it’s not as cut and dried. … It’s just wanting it more than the guy across from you. That’s probably what we’re lacking most is the effort part of it.”
Harris added a 90-yard kickoff return in the third quarter, sprung free as rookie David Amerson absorbed an enormous hit that forced him out of the game with a concussion. E.J. Biggers ran him down to save a touchdown, an admirable moment of hustle, then, later in the quarter, drew a flag for holding on a punt return that didn’t gain one yard.
That’s the story of the failed night that will turn into the story of the wobbling season if a solution isn’t found.
“We found the enemy. It’s us.”