A Case of the Nothing Special Teams

It tends to be an over-used cliche in football, but it couldn’t be more true tonight: the Washington Redskins did as much — if not more — to beat themselves, than anything that the Cowboys really did.

The talking heads like to say that the hallmark of a bad team is that they find ways to lose a game, instead of ways to win one. Tonight, the Redskins might have found the most innovative and inventive ways to beat themselves that i’ve seen in two-plus decades of watching this team.

That’s what makes the Redskins 31-16 loss to Dallas so damn frustrating. Tony Romo, despite yet again pulling a few rabbits out of his hat, didn’t really beat the Redskins. Dez Bryant, who at times looks like the most dominant receiver in the entire NFL (Calvin Johnson included), didn’t beat the Redskins. Nor did Jason Witten, a perennial headache for the Redskins, nor whatever backup running back Dallas is trotting out these days, nor did any member of the rag-tag MASH unit that is the Dallas defense.

Instead, the Redskins borrowed one of the Cowboys six-shooters and unloaded bullets into their feet, repeatedly, on Special Teams plays. While the offense did this team few favors at key points in the game, the Redskins special teams were three steps below horrendous this evening. If there was a grade below an “F” on the grading scale, I’d give it to that unit.

We’ll state the obvious, that Dwayne Harris — whom most Redskins fans wouldn’t know from Dwayne Wade or Dwayne Johnson or any other Dwayne you can think of — was only the third player in the history of the NFL to return a punt and a kick for over 85 yards in a single game. He, almost singlehandedly, put the nail in the Redskins coffin this evening, scoring seven points on his own one return and setting up a comically short field on the other return (which, of course, the Cowboys converted for a touchdown).

Then you add in the unfathomable idea that Keith Burns, the Redskins special teams coach, is penalized for “illegal contact with a referee on the sideline,” a penalty I don’t think i’ve ever heard called in the 20+ years i’ve been watching football. Before that, there was the illegal motion call on Jerome Murphy, which facilitated the re-punting situation that lead to Harris’ punt return for a touchdown. Then there was the false start on an extra point.

Oh, and let’s not forget Kai Forbath missing, admittedly, a long field goal attempt in the fourth quarter, giving him his second miss of the 2013 season (and his second miss in two games the two games that he’s actually played in), after missing only one attempt in all of 2012.

That’s how you lose a game where you have over twice as many total yards, almost four times as many rushing yards, and almost 10 minutes more in time of possession. You can’t act like the three stooges for 1/3rd of your team’s units that you trot out there, and expect to win a game on the road against a team that is easily as talented — if not more so — than the team you’re rolling in with.

Last year, Redskins fans blamed Danny Smith for everything from poor punt coverage to poverty in third world countries. With Smith in Pittsburgh, Burns will undoubtedly draw the fans ire (perhaps rightfully so, given the unit’s performance tonight).

But while coaching has plenty to do with it, so does the quality of players the team is putting out there on the field. Josh Morgan isn’t a kick returner. Neither is Chris Thompson. Neither is Niles Paul, really. Santana Moss isn’t the answer, because he’s lost more than a few steps over the years. The team didn’t have the money to retain special teams stalwart Lorenzo Alexander, they lost Richard Crawford — their designated return specialist — to an ACL injury early in the pre-season, and players who actually can contribute, like Bacarri Rambo and Phillip Thomas, are either inactive or injured.

But whether it’s coaching or talent (or both), it became apparent that it’s a glaring deficiency to the point where it cost this team a chance to compete in an otherwise winnable game.

That’s a problem that, unfortunately, leaves Redskins fans with more questions than answers.

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