- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Some worried players are walking the halls of Redskins Park these days. Many of them are fresh out of special teams meetings. This new kickoff rule, they say, just ain’t cool.

A handful of Washington Redskins that make their living on special teams, including a few household names, could be in danger.

One of the game’s most exciting and important plays has become routine because the league now requires teams to kick off from the 35-yard line instead of the 30. Touchbacks have replaced tackles, at least in Washington.

As a result, many Redskins who cover kickoffs believe their value to the team has diminished, and they wonder where that will leave them when the final roster is set Sept. 3.

“That’s what we’ve been talking about,” said Lorenzo Alexander, last year’s special teams captain. “Unless [kickers] try to sky it or maybe put it at the 1-yard line, you could put anybody out there just to jog down and cover a touchback.”

Redskins kicker Graham Gano has kicked off 10 times in two preseason games. Nine have resulted in touchbacks, the highest total and percentage of any team in the league.

That’s nine missed chances for a player to catch a coach’s eye with a special teams tackle.

“It works on your mind because if you’re not a starter, you’ve got to contribute to the team in some other way,” linebacker Horatio Blades said. “The only other way you can do that is special teams. You’re out there trying to bust your tail and make the team on special teams, and that’s a play that’s cut out pretty much because of all the touchbacks that are happening now.”

The NFL this offseason moved the kickoff point forward to reduce the amount of returns. The league wants to decrease the frequency of high-speed, high-impact collisions that result in concussions, and those hits are common on kickoffs.

The numbers to this point indicate the NFL has achieved its desired result: 62 percent of kickoffs this preseason have been returned compared to 83 percent last regular season.

“You’re going to see more touchbacks,” coach Mike Shanahan said. “Every team is going to have a little different strategy. I think the better returner you have, the more you dislike the rules.”

Forget about the quality of the returner, though. The Redskins have a darn good coverage unit.

They have ranked in the NFL’s top five in kickoff return-yard average in each of the past five seasons. The prideful group of players responsible is concerned that the new rule minimizes its contribution.

“I feel like coaches after a while feel like they can replace those guys with anybody that’s just willing to run down there,” linebacker Rob Jackson said. “They’re not really covering anything.”

The outlook for some of the core special teamers isn’t completely grim, though.

The Redskins‘ have told Gano to boom the ball through the end zone in each of the first two preseason games, but special teams coach Danny Smith could change that approach. There might be more strategy involved at some point. Players are hopeful, at least.

“Once the season comes around, he’ll get into all that stuff — bloops and all different kinds of things,” Blades said. “But it’s still preseason. You don’t want to show your cards so early.”

“It’s easy to do,” Gano added. “It just depends on what coach wants.”

Gano has enjoyed showing off his leg strength the past two weeks, but he’s convinced that the coverage team still has value.

“You’re not going to have touchbacks all year long,” he said. “You’re going to get games later in the season where it’s getting colder; the ball doesn’t go as far; windy games. Guys’ legs are going to get weaker throughout the season. It always happens.”

It can’t happen soon enough for players such as Jackson, Blades and Alexander. The more touchbacks that fly through the end zone in the last two preseason games, the more apprehension there will be leading up to final cuts.

“I really hate the rule right now,” Alexander said. “I think I might have to start paying [Graham] to bloop some kicks for me.”

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