- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 2, 2018

ASHBURN — The Washington Redskins‘ special teamers are close. After all, how many of your co-workers would you want to go to an escape room with?

Tress Way had the idea. He and his wife Brianna had already fulfilled their interest in trying an escape room, a trendy new gaming fad. The game-based businesses, which have popped up in shopping centers across the country, offer tests of patient problem-solving in which players solve various puzzles in a set amount of time to get free from a locked room.

Way thought kicker Dustin Hopkins, long snapper Nick Sundberg and their wives would enjoy the challenge, too. So they went to one in Richmond during the Redskins 2018 training camp.

“They looked at me and were like, ‘That was sweet,’” Way said. “We’re very competitive. All three of us are relatively creative, so we just appreciated the creativity side of it.”

It’s the same creative thinking Way brings to his side business publishing board games — and in a way, he has to get creative in order to pin teams deep in their own territory so consistently.

From the Rams’ Johnny Hekker to the Seahawks’ Michael Dickson, NFL punters are catching fans’ eyes with their booming kicks this year more than ever. Yet there’s an argument to be made that Way is having the best punting season in the league. He’s doing it not with huge distance but with pinpoint precision.

Through Week 12, Way led the NFL with 31 punts downed inside the 20-yard line, and he’s done so without surrendering a touchback. Only Way and the Chargers’ Donnie Jones are touchback-free, but Way has stayed spotless over 52 punts entering Monday as opposed to Jones’ 29.

Way is on the lower end of the scale in terms of gross yards per punt (43.7), but as with many positions in sports, some statistics obfuscate real performance given the situation. For punters, what good is averaging 50 yards if you frequently give 25 yards back on a touchback?

“I’m not paying attention to the numbers this year, but I think my gross average is a little bit shorter,” Way said, “but I’ve just been more effective on the field and it’s been a fun year.”

“It’s tough when the other team has to start inside their own 5, they try to put a drive together, and they can’t and they have to punt,” Hopkins said. “We’re starting at almost the 50 sometimes. It helps your defense and it helps your offense. It’s kind of overlooked often.”

A perfect example came against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving. On the first drive of the second half, Way pinned a 54-yarder at the Dallas 8. The Redskins defense forced a three-and-out and the offense got a very short field after a Trey Quinn return. The ensuing touchdown handed the Redskins the lead before the game got away from them.

Way also won NFC Special Teams Player of the Week for Week 10, an award usually given to electric returners or kickers who make game-winners. Against Tampa Bay that week, Way averaged 49.4 yards on five punts, four of which were downed inside the 20.

In the locker room a few days later, the punter attracted a stream of reporters and TV cameras and greeted them with what seemed like genuine surprise, saying he ought to take a picture of the scene.

His performance that week also prompted coach Jay Gruden to offer a colorful compliment.

“He’s just dropping the ball, pinpointing balls at the 3, 4-yard line, and our guys, our gunners don’t even have to down them,” Gruden said. “They are back-spinning and he looks like he’s hitting soft 9-irons into the Masters’ ninth green, for goodness sakes.”

Still, Way credited gunners like Jehu Chesson, Adonis Alexander and Danny Johnson “flying down on top of” punts to contain opposing returners, and he praised Sundberg’s clean snaps.

Way went undrafted out of the University of Oklahoma in 2013. After two offseasons competing for the Chicago Bears’ job, he was waived in August 2014 and claimed by the Redskins shortly after.

“It was the first time in my NFL career, my pro football career, that I felt wanted,” Way said. “It was like, ‘Hey, we want you to be the guy.’ So I came in, (special teams) Coach (Ben) Kotwica said, ‘You’ve got 10 days. You punt better than the other guy, you get the job.’”

Not only did he get the job, he was voted as special teams captain the following year. Way said he’s kept his jersey from that season with the captain’s “C” on it ever since. Something else he’ll never forget: the five-year contract extension the Redskins gave him in March 2016.

“It was back at the house my wife and I were renting. I got off the phone and I just started crying immediately,” Way said. “I called my mom and dad, we called her mom and dad. It was just so surreal. I was just so thankful. I know that the good Lord gave me a big leg to punt the football and I’ve been working my tail off ever since I knew I could punt a little bit.”

That extension doesn’t mean Way can’t have a side hustle — though his board games didn’t start out as money-making ventures. They began as a way to interact with teammates at training camp or on road trips.

Way always had a liking for trivia, but he knew that others were turned off by how difficult trivia games can get. That’s why his first brainchild, “What’s Your Bid,” asks questions that have not one but several answers, usually in the form of a list.

“I wasn’t asking for, ‘Who’s the Super Bowl winner in 2003?’ It was, ‘Who were the last 10 teams to win the Super Bowl?’ Everybody always knows an answer and it keeps them coming back,” he said.

Way has copyrighted and published three board games with his company, Way Fun Games, and has more in the pipeline. He said some of his Oklahoma friends are most excited for one forthcoming game called “Color Rush,” but Redskins friends are fans too.

“It was cool to see the guys get close like that,” Way said.

One of those friends, Hopkins, said he trusts Way as a player and as a person, speaking highly of his “character and integrity” as well as his mentality.

“Tress has always been mentally very strong. Not only with his trivia game, but his mental toughness is way up there,” Hopkins said. “Even though it doesn’t happen very often, if he hits a bad punt, he comes back and he’s ready to step up and hit a good one.”

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