Redskins search for positive returns

ASHBURN -- The Redskins didn't do anything spectacular on their kick returns against Minnesota. But they nearly broke one or two. They returned three kicks past the 20-yard line.

Both are cause for celebration -- which lets you know just how bad the return game has been this season. One factor Thursday: Having Niles Paul serve as the deep man instead of Josh Morgan.

Paul averaged 24.7 yards on three returns, each one going past the 20-yard line. Morgan has averaged 19.9 yards per kickoff return.

It was the first time Paul had served as the primary kick returner, after serving in that role during the final part of 2012 when he averaged 21.8 yards per runback.

"Very satisfied with his innate ability to bring back a couple kicks," Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said of Paul. "We're going to move people around. If somebody takes advantage of their opportunities, they'll stay there. If they don't, we'll try somebody else. That's one of the reasons we put Niles back there, to give him a shot and he took advantage of that opportunity. We were one or two blocks away on a couple of those returns from going the distance."

Shanahan said Morgan's sub-par returns weren't just his fault.

"You put it on everybody," Shanahan said. "But the great ones sometimes miss four or five guys. You're always looking for that guy, just like Josh did against Denver -- he made three guys miss. So you know he's got that ability, but we're going to continually have guys compete for positions and we'll go with the best player."

Which does not sound like a ringing endorsement for Morgan to continue much longer as a punt returner, where his decision making has been called into question. In fairness to Morgan, he returned only seven punts in college and none in the NFL until this season. He's still learning when to run up and catch the ball or when to let it bounce.

The problem is, Washington's other punt return options are limited: Santana Moss can do it; DeAngelo Hall has done it, but not very well and he was prone to fumbles. Chris Thompson was trying to learn to do it, but he's about to undergo surgery on a torn labrum in his left shoulder. Nick Williams can do it, but he's on the practice squad. Aldrick Robinson did not handle this role well when provided an opportunity as both a rookie and second-year player.

That leaves Morgan, who dropped one punt against Minnesota only to recover.

"He's got a lot of guts," Shanahan said. "During that game [Thursday] he was actually contacted before he caught the ball, if you look at it in slow motion. So he's fearless and you know that, but sometimes being fearless causes turnovers so we ask him to be smart as well."