Over the next week, Redskins reporter Tarik El-Bashir will examine what went wrong in 2012 and weigh possible solutions to the issues.
Today, we’re looking at the kick and punt return game.
Key players: Brandon Banks, Niles Paul and Richard Crawford
The problem: Brandon Banks struggled for much of the campaign on both kickoff and punt returns, and was benched by Coach Mike Shanahan in Week 14 against the Ravens. At the time, the pint-sized player ranked 25th on kickoffs and 22nd on punts.
Banks’ benching, however, extended beyond statistical ineffectiveness. Shanahan had also noted that he was concerned about the returner’s decision-making. The tipping point likely arrived in Dallas, where Banks twice elected to take kickoffs out of the end zone only to be stopped at the 13-and 18-yard line, respectively. In that game, Banks also fielded a punt in the end zone – a big no-no – and was stopped at the 7.
Banks was back in the lineup against the Giants a week later but returned one kick off for 20 yards and three punts for a total of 21 yards. On one kickoff, Niles Paul, the off-returner, stepped in front of Banks and took the ball back 39 yards to the Redskins’ 34, opening eyes on the Redskins' sideline.
Banks did not see the field again in 2012 and the team finished 16th in kickoff return average at 23.5 yards. For comparison’s sake, four teams averaged 27 or more yards per return, led by Jacoby Jones and the Ravens (27.3 yards).
The potential fix: With the Redskins facing another $18 million salary cap penalty in 2013, and bigger needs existing elsewhere, it’s possible the team will look to players already on the roster to replace Banks.
Paul averaged 24.9 yards per return over the final five games. It's an admittedly small sample size, but over the course of a full season it would have ranked 13th among qualified returners. Paul’s only obvious miscue turned out to be a cheap lesson; his fumbled kickoff against the Ravens was ruled to have been recovered out of bounds after a video review.
Aldrick Robinson, meantime, is also listed on the Redskins’ depth chart as kickoff returner and often was seen getting reps during pre-game warm-ups. He did not return a kick in a game, however.
It’s entirely possible the team has already found its punt returner for next season. Fast and decisive, Crawford averaged 19.5 yards on eight returns after replacing Banks against Baltimore. Crawford’s highlight came in his debut, when he returned a punt 64 yards to the Ravens’ 24-yard line to set up the game-winning field goal.
Defensive backs Josh Wilson and DeAngelo Hall each returned a punt in pinch duty, while veteran wide receiver Santana Moss was listed as a punt returner on the team’s depth chart.
In summary, Banks remains on the roster but his future remains unclear. He’s a restricted free agent and his biggest proponent, special teams coach Danny Smith, has departed for the Steelers. If Shanahan/the new special teams coach believe that Paul and Crawford could be long-term solutions, the Redskins could be set. If not, the team may attempt to acquire a return specialist on the cheap.