For Mike Shanahan it's business as usual
Niles Paul knew he could be a productive kick returner in the NFL. He just needed an opportunity.
That long awaited chance finally arrived in Week 13, when he was tapped to replace a struggling and ailing Brandon Banks. Since the surprising move, Paul has been a difference maker for the Redskins, who host Seattle on Sunday in a wild card playoff game.
In the past five contests, Paul has taken back nine kickoffs for a respectable average of 24.9 yards per attempt, a figure that would put him 13th in the NFL. He's also broken off long returns of 39 and 48 yards.
“I feel I’ve been all right,” said Paul, a second-year pro who holds the Nebraska career mark for kickoffs returned for touchdowns with two. “There was a transition period because I wasn’t used to returning in the NFL. But now I’m coming into my own and have a good feel for where to hit the [seam] at.”
After months of biding his time as the off-returner, Paul seized the lead job on Dec. 3 when the Giants visited FedEx Field. He stepped in front of Banks to field a deep kickoff, then proceeded to bowl his way 39 yards to the Redskins’ 34 yard line. It was the only return of the game for the 6-foot-1, 233-pound Paul, but he was handed the job on a fulltime basis a week later. At the time, Coach Mike Shanahan said he was looking for more production than Banks had been providing.
Paul's tenure, though, didn’t get off to an ideal start.
The Redskins were trailing the Ravens 28-20 in the fourth quarter when Paul fumbled a kickoff in the fourth quarter. Fortunately for him, though, officials ruled that the ball had been recovered out of bounds, handing possession back to the Redskins, who went on to win the game 31-28 in overtime.
“I was on suicide watch on the sidelines,” Paul said. “A guy got a clean shot on me and the ball just came out. I messed up. I knew I messed up.”
Despite the miscue, special teams coach Danny Smith decided to stick with Paul, who said he learned a valuable lesson.
“A lot of people are trying to strip the ball compared to college,” he said. “I used to be able to carry that thing like a loaf of bread.”
Three games later, the defining moment of Paul’s brief tenure arrived in a win-or-go-home game against the Cowboys.
Dallas had trimmed its deficit to 21-18 late in the fourth quarter when Paul helped the Redskins regain the upper hand with a career-best 48-yard return that set the home team up at its own 46. Paul's clutch return began with a decisive cut from the hashmarks to the sideline and featured a textbook stiff arm on kicker Dan Bailey.
Although Washington did not score on the ensuing possession, the play flipped the field and helped punter Sav Rocca pin the Cowboys deep in their own end a few moments later. Linebacker Rob Jackson’s interception two plays after sealed the pivotal victory.
“We needed a big return,” Coach Mike Shanahan said this week. “It was a three-point game and he takes us out to midfield. It’s the difference between winning and losing. He broke a couple of tackles there and that’s what we were hoping he would do.”
Shanahan added: “He’s got a lot of ability and he’s going to keep on getting better and better.”