Barry Svrluga of The Washington Post has a story on the Washington Redskins' special teams, which is having a great year in some respects and struggling in others. It's an interesting story, especially if you're, say, Redskins kicker Graham Gano, who is apparently "under more pressure than other players to keep his job in Sunday's game at Seattle," but I found it interesting for more reasons than that.
I've long thought that great, consistent special teams play was about much more than coaching or schemes or the attention it's granted by the team's head coach. All of that matters, but I think teams that get great special teams play are teams that are extremely deep with athletes hungry for opportunity to move up the roster and do more in the future. And I think the Redskins' uneven performance in their return units this year speaks to a lack of depth that has to be addressed as this rebuilding process continues to move forward.
The Redskins' struggles during their current six-game losing streak are a product of their personnel issues on offense specifically, but a look at the roster as a whole reminds you just how far they had to go and why patience remains the key element in assessing the performance of Mike Shanahan and the coaching staff. This is simply not a team with enough good players to compete for a 2011 playoff spot. It's not about whether Kyle Shanahan knows what he's doing or which substandard quarterback should be the starter or whether Mike Shanahan should be molding his scheme to fit his players rather than seeking players to fit his scheme. Those could all become worthwhile debates at a time in the future when the Redskins' roster is loaded with talented players more capable of winning games than are the ones they have now. But right now, the Redskins' issue is a simple one -- they don't have enough good players.
Barry writes of "a special teams mix that has been outstanding in some regards (punting, punt coverage and kickoff coverage) and middling to poor in other phases (punt and kickoff returns and place kicking)." This feels, to me, like the special teams mix of a team in transition. Throw place kicking out of the mix for now. The Cowboys and Dan Bailey have shown that you can fix that with one good undrafted free-agent signing. If the Redskins are performing well in coverage but poorly on returns (or even if it were vice-versa), that's the mark of a team that's got some of those young, hungry athletes at the back end of its roster but not as many as it wants or will eventually need. The Redskins are making a slow turn in the right direction, and I think special teams is an area to continue to watch if you want to know whether progress is continuing to be made.