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The 5 O'Clock Club: Special Teams focus

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere...

The 5 o’clock club aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.

The Special Teams 3-man unit

The Redskins, like just about every NFL club, carries three players that form the special teams core: the punter, the placekicker and the long-snapper.

These three specialists work together, and are integral to field position and scoring, but are often lightly regarded as football players.

Tress Way

I personally first became aware of Tress Way when I saw him kicking for the Bears in pre-season in 2014. The Redskins were trying to replace their previous punter, Sav Rocca, who had been pretty terrible in 2013. I became interested in Way because he obviously had talent, but the Bears weren’t going to cut, Pat O’Donnell, whom they had spent a 6th round draft pick on. When the Bears released Way, the Redskins were quick to pounce on him, in turn releasing Robert Malone, who had started training camp with the ‘Skin in ‘14.

Tress Way has proven to be a real weapon in the field position battle. Possessed of a strong leg, the left-footed punter routinely booms punts downfield, and has been pretty consistent at placing the ball inside the opponents’ 20-yard line on shorter-field kicks as well. The Redskins think enough of him that they gave him a 5-year contract extension in 2015.

The Redskin punter also has one extremely notable play that stood out as a difference-maker in the victory against the Giants last season -- his 31-yard pass completion to Quinton Dunbar on a fake punt. Way was colorful in describing that play:

Ben Kotwica asked him last year: If the team wanted to run a fake punt, would he rather run the ball himself or pass it?

“I go, ‘Are you kidding me? Let me throw it,’ ” Way said. “I go, ‘We’ve got the best athletes in the world on the field. I’m not gonna get hit by one of those dudes. Let me try and throw it and see what we can make happen there.’ ”

Dunbar, Way said, had a one-on-one matchup on the outside with Giants defensive back Trevin Wade. This is what the Redskins had hoped for. As long as Dunbar was one-on-one with Wade, “then it was on,” Way said.

“We had watched a lot of film on him,” Way said. “We knew he was gonna let him go a little bit. And the worst part was having to keep my head down without looking at the rush. That is a rush, man. You get out there and you’ve got these dudes coming after you and you’re not looking, looking, and then look up and launch one? Oh man. It was awesome.”

Still, Tress Way’s job first and foremost is punting, and any fan who has watched Redskins games for the past three years would probably say that he’s been getting better every year.

The statistics he is amassing don’t necessarily support that idea. His average distance, net average, and inside-the-20 numbers have all gone down each year. This, however, is likely due to annual improvement in the Redskins offense. Way punted 77 times in 2014, but only 49 times last season — the second-lowest in the league among punters who played all 16 games.

Of course, the other critical job that Tress Way has is being the holder for field goal attempts, where he has shown himself to be reliably sure-handed.

While Tress Way may not lead the league in any punting categories, he has the highest Passer Rating of any punter in the league, so there’s that.

Dustin Hopkins

While the Redskins can boast of Mark Mosely — the only kicker to have ever been named NFL League MVP — that was a long time ago, and the more recent history of Redskins kickers has been less noteworthy, and has included a pattern of giving up on kickers too early, only to watch them go on to have success kicking for other teams. Consider that the team cut Nick Novak, Shaun Suisham, and Graham Gano all between 2005 and 2011, then parted ways with Kai Forbath after three seasons, and it might help explain why the team is showing patience with Dustin Hopkins.

Hopkins was signed initially for his strong leg and ability to produce touchbacks — in part because the Redskins special teams were so poor at coverage. He has lived up to his strong-legged reputation, with 65 touchbacks (tied for 2nd in the NFL) on 92 kickoffs last season. He also has a reputation for being skilled at onside kicks.

Still, watching Hopkins’ field goal made percentage drop from 89.3% in 2015 to only 81% last season was tough on fans. In addition, some high-profile misses, such as his 2-out-of-4 performance against the Bengals in London, had a number of fans calling for a new kicker -- or at least some camp competition.

Jay Gruden and the front office didn’t agree. Gruden made it clear that he has faith in “Hoppy” (as Jay invariably refers to his kicker), and that the kicker’s sub-par 2016 season is considered an aberration, though Jay said in a press conference recently that the team has a list of names to call if needed.

The Redskins offensive success in moving the ball between the 20s, combined with poor red zone efficiency had the effect of boosting Dustin’s number of field goal attempts from 28 in 2015 to a league-high 42 kicks last season. With so many attempts, Hopkins had the chance to rise to the top of the league in scoring.

Hopkins actually had the 5th highest number of successful field goals among NFL kickers last season, and he was instrumental in some victories, such as his 5/5 performance against the Giants in Week 3, and going 4/4 in the win against the Vikings. But he faltered too many times later in the season (it may be worth noting that 3 missed kicks is the difference between 89% and 81%, so there isn’t a big difference between ‘excellent’ and just ‘okay’ in the life of an NFL field goal kicker).

For now, the team is counting on Hopkins returning to his 2015 form, when he kicked 25 of 28 field goals, and the Redskins went to the playoffs; meanwhile, the Redskins continue to benefit from his strong leg on kickoffs. Still, the result of the London game, and the failure to make the playoffs last season, have made fans a bit less patient with Hopkins. He started 2016 with 12 straight field goals in the first 4 games, and had only 1 miss in the first 6 games of the season. Getting off to that kind of start in 2017 would do a lot to calm the nerves of many fans.

Nick Sundberg

There aren’t a lot of statistics for long snappers, and not a ton of articles get written about them. I actually wanted to do an email interview with Nick Sundberg for the 5 o’clock club, but attempts to use Twitter and to contact Nick via 3rd party acquaintances didn’t pan out. If you know Nick Sundberg, tell him that there’s a guy in Bangkok who’s keen to get him to answer 7 simple questions for publication.

One good Washington Times article about Nick Sunberg is actually titled: Do you know this man? Redskins’ long snapper an anonymous perfectionist, so even when writing a feature about him, the Redskins long snapper is referred to as being “anonymous”.

Thousands of fans left the stadium later Sunday afternoon with memories of [the] game-winning 22-yard field goal as time expired, the lasting image of the ball splitting the uprights and players spilling onto the field to celebrate. Few fans think twice about the snap that set it up.

Or the other 474 snaps Sundberg has made since joining the Redskins.

“You never hear anything about him because he just does his job,” punter Tress Way said. “Every single time.”

For Sundberg, it just comes with the territory. Being a long snapper in the NFL means putting in countless hours of individual practice that is sometimes overlooked even in your own locker room. It means taking hundreds of snaps every day, lifting weights four days a week and studying hours of film to diagnose field goal and punt block schemes. It means practicing to put the ball on the left hip of a left-footed punter every time, or figuring out the velocity and spin of an extra-point snap so it lands in the holder’s hands with the laces already facing out.

“Ninety-nine percent isn’t good enough,” Sundberg said. “I like that. I strive for perfection.”

To the untrained eye, long snapping seems straightforward, like a snap from the center to the quarterback from a little bit farther away. In reality, it is a completely different trade, wrought with unique challenges and demands.

A center, for example, cannot do the splits. Sundberg — listed at 6 feet, 264 pounds — can. Flexibility is an important aspect of long snapping because the snapper must reach all the way through his legs to snap the ball. Size matters, too, as he must be large enough to anchor the middle of the protection but also nimble enough to race downfield and cover a punt.

To prepare each week, Sundberg watches tape like any other player, spending hours in the film room alongside Redskins assistant special teams coach Bradford Banta, who spent the majority of his 11 years in the NFL as a long snapper. Sundberg needs to not only know how his upcoming opponent will try to block a punt or kick, but also the individual tendencies of players who will try to cross in front of him or pick him.

Beyond film, however, Sundberg’s preparation strays from the rest of the team. His practices are an exercise in simple repetition, snapping over and over and over again, often as many as 200 times per day.

On field goals and extra points, Sundberg’s snap should reach Way’s hands with the laces already pointing straight up. This saves the holder the split-second adjustment of spinning the ball around to put the laces out, which gives [the kicker] a split-second longer to see the ball upon his approach.

“He is definitely a perfectionist,” Way said. “It’s nice because my job depends on him. Whenever you have a perfectionist that you’re working with, you’re usually pretty comfortable because you know that guy’s going to work really hard.”

That’s why Redskins coaches mostly leave Sundberg alone at practice. Banta offers tips in the film room but leaves the actual snapping techniques to Sundberg.

“I want to be the best in the world. I don’t want to be the best on this team,” Sundberg said. “So no coach could be harder on me than I am on myself. And I think they realize that.”

The reality of life as a long snapper is that you’re only noticed when you make a mistake. The only statistic that matters is the number of snaps that sail over a punter’s head.

“The whole nobody knowing my name thing? I’m fine with that,” Sundberg said with a shrug. “As long as I still got a locker, that’s all I care about.”


Should the Redskins have brought a second kicker into camp this year to challenge Dustin Hopkins?

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