By Tarik El-Bashir
When the Redskins open the preseason Thursday in Buffalo, a number of players who are engaged in position battles will get their first chance to make an impression.
Incumbent kicker Graham Gano is one of them.
Through two weeks of training camp, Gano has acquitted himself well as he attempts to fend off Neil Rackers, the veteran signed this offseason to challenge him. Gano and Rackers both are unofficially 16 for 19 in the three head-to-head field goal competitions thus far.
But, as Gano and special teams Coach Danny Smith conceded this week, practice means relatively little when determining which kicker makes the 53-man roster. It really will come down to what transpires during the team’s four preseason contests, beginning with the Bills.
“That’s what separates everybody; it’s execution under pressure,” Smith said Thursday in his first public comments since training camp began. “We’re going put them in those pressure situations and see who executes the best.”
Smith said his biggest challenge as a position coach will be to ensure that both Gano and Rackers get equal opportunity to show what they can do. To accomplish that, Smith said he plans to have the player who kicks a field goal or point after to also take the ensuing kickoff, as to simulate a normal game routine.
On Thursday, Gano will go first if the Redskins kickoff to start the game, Smith said. If not, it will depend on which kicker finished the first half.
By the end of the four exhibitions, Smith said it will be obvious to everyone which kicker has the edge.
“It’s going to be on production, solely,” Smith said.
Gano would seem to have the advantage entering the preseason. At 25 years old, he’s 10 years younger than Rackers. He’s got the stronger leg and is familiar to the coaching staff after spending the previous three seasons in Washington.
That said, Gano connected on 75.6 percent of his field goals, which ranked 29th in the NFL. That number, of course, was negatively impacted by five blocked attempts.
“I met with the coaches and they said there wasn’t anything I could do anything about it personally,” Gano said of the blocks. “You don’t want blocks at all. But last year, that’s the past.”
Smith declined to say what exactly went haywire on so many attempts in 2011. He did, however, concede that there was plenty of blame to be spread around, beginning with him.
“We had a lot of issues, to be honest,” Smith said.
If Gano is going to retain his job, Smith said he wants to see more consistency and focus.
“Day in and day out you got to do it,” Smith said. “Just … because we do it for a couple years doesn’t mean we have it. As a coach in this league, you get new coaches and they get their first contract and they think they arrived. I don’t think they arrived until you get another contract. It’s the same with a kicker.”
As for Gano, he said he’s not feeling any additional pressure because he used to fighting for his job in camp.
But he also said he likes his chances.
“I’m feeling pretty good,” Gano said. “I’m starting to hit my stride and I’m looking forward to Thursday.”