ASHBURN — On Sept. 22, with just seconds remaining in the first half, Washington kick returner Chris Thompson fielded the ball 4 yards deep in the end zone, then ran out to his 22-yard line.
That was the high-water mark this season for the Redskins special teams.
The Redskins haven’t run a kickoff back more than 26 yards. Their average starting field position for all drives is their 23-yard line, not only the worst in the league but the worst by any team in at least a decade.
Throw in an emergency midseason meeting to get players on the same page, and a picture emerges of the Washington special teams under first-year coordinator Keith Burns.
“Every time we go back there, we’re always one block away, one read away or one cut away,” said tight end Niles Paul, the latest to try his hand at returning kicks. “It’s about making the right decisions and having the right people out there holding blocks and everything, and the right return man making the right cuts.”
Coach Mike Shanahan endorsed Paul two weeks ago, saying the potential for big returns exists if the players in front of him block properly.
So far this season, that hasn’t happened.
“It’s not a lack of scheme and it’s not a lack of effort,” fullback Darrel Young said. “I don’t know what it is, man.”
There was dissension early in the season as the players bristled at the techniques introduced by Burns.
Burns, after a distinguished playing career on special teams, had spent the past six seasons as assistant special-teams coach in Denver before joining Shanahan in Washington this offseason.
Players were reluctant to buy in to his methods, griping anonymously that the schemes couldn’t succeed in the NFL.
During the team’s bye week in Week 5, Burns had a meeting with the players to clear the air. Since then, players say the group has been more unified in practices — the players all received camouflage “special teams” shirts, which they wear around Redskins Park regularly.
“When you try something new it’s going to be a little foreign, a little difficult to buy in all the way,” tight end Logan Paulsen said. “But as you get more familiar with it, it’s going to help you get more comfortable.”
Paul described the mood in practices now as “a whole different attitude,” saying players were “working their butts off trying to make plays.”
Those plays still haven’t come, though. So far this season, only the Redskins and Buffalo Bills haven’t returned a kickoff 30 yards.
That strain is passed along to the offense, which has had to start inside its 10-yard line 15 times this season. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan joked Thursday he’s running out of plays to call in those situations.
“It’s been unusual,” he said. “It’s not something you really enjoy, but if everything still works out, you can get a 99-yard drive, and that’s always more fun than an 80-yard drive.”
Against the Broncos, the offense turned in a 95-yard touchdown drive — it is 0 for 3, including a missed field goal, on drives that open from the 1-yard line.
The special teams woes aren’t just limited to the kick return game.
Washington’s punt return unit is 31st out of 32 teams, its punting is 32nd in all metrics and it has made fewer field goals (10) than any other team.
When the offense and defense are clicking, they can cover for special teams miscues. But the Redskins are languishing at 3-7, and need all the help they can get.
So far it’s not coming, as the kick-return unit trends toward an NFL record for futility.