This is a repost of an article I wrote in Janaury of 2011. Some updated numbers are presented presented below but the overall picture of the permformance of Danny Smith's special teams has not improved since this was written.
To take an objective look at Smith’s performance, let’s go to FootballOutsiders.com, that fine numbers crunching outfit. While I don’t view their stats as the final word in any discussion, they do provide a good, objective way of evaluating performance, especially over a period of years. They use a system called DVOA, which is a plus or minus rating based on the team’s performance with factors such as the strength of the opposition taken into account. You can go here if you want the nitty-gritty on the system.
If you want to keep it simple, a plus rating is better than average while a minus indicates a below-average performance. We’ll also look at some of the individual highlights and lowlights from year to year. While this isn’t intended to be a comprehensive look at Smith’s Redskins career, it can serve as at least an objective starting point for further discussion.
2004 Special teams DVOA: -3.9% (31st in NFL) Best area: Kickoff return, 3.5 Worst area: Punt cover, -10.5 Tom Tupa was second in punting average in the NFL with 44.1 yards per punt. But the coverage gave back 11.2 yards per return, 26th in the league. Ladell Betts was the primary kickoff returner and he averaged 23.0 yards per return.
2005 Special teams DVOA: 1.5% (9th) Best area: Punt cover, 10.1 Worst area: Punt return, -4.3 Derrick Frost’s punts didn’t travel as far as Tupa’s did the previous season but the coverage was much better. Frost’s kicks averaged a pedestrian 40.4 yards. The coverage unit made up for it by allowing an average of just 4.7 yards per return. Antonio Brown and James Thrash returned most of the punts and their longest return of the year was 18 yards by Thrash.
2006 Special teams DVOA: 1.7% (11th) Best area: Kickoff return 5.1 Worst area: FG/PAT -2.9 Shaun Suisham (5 games), John Hall (5 games), and Nick Novak (6 games) tag-teamed the kicker duties for the season. They combined to make just 73.3 per cent of their field goals including 6 of 11 from between 40 and 49 yards. Rock Cartwright returned the bulk of the kickoffs, averaging 24.1 yards per return including a 100-yard run back for a touchdown.
2007 Special teams DVOA: -0.3% (16th) Best area: Kickoff return and punt cover, both 7.1 Worst area:Punt return, -7.0 Antwaan Randle El was the primary punt returner with a 6.1 yard average. The team averaged 7.5 yards per return, 26th in the NFL. Cartwright continued to return kickoffs for a 25.8-yard average and a long return of 80 yards. Frost continued his pattern of producing shorter punts but ones that allowed the coverage team to do its job. The Redskins allowed 6.3 yards per return, sixth in the league.
2008 Special teams DVOA: -2.0% (25th) Best area: Kick return 7.7 Worst area: Punt return -10.2 In a perfect demonstration of the old adage, “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it”, many Redskins fans got just what they wanted when Frost was released. But rookie Durant Brooks, a sixth-round draft pick, lasted just six games before yielding to veteran Ryan Plackemeier, who wasn’t much better. The two combined to average 41.0 yards a punt and the opponents returned those kicks for an average of 11.7 yards, 27th in the NFL. And speaking of players that some wanted run out of town, Cartwright continued to deliver a solid performance returning kicks, averaging 25.6 yards.
2009 Special teams DVOA: -1.3% (23rd) Best area: Kickoff cover 5.8 Worst area: Kick return -8.0 The Redskins allowed the kickoffs of Suisham (first 12 games) and Graham Gano (final four games) to be returned for an average of 19.7 yards, third best in the NFL. With Cartwright and Devin Thomas sharing the kickoff return duties the performance plummeted as the team averaged 21.7 yards per return, 24th in the league.
2010 Special teams DVOA: -1.7% (26th) Best area: Kickoff cover 16.4 Worst area: Punt cover: -21.2 You might see why the Redskins want to give Gano another shot at keeping the place kicking job as his kickoffs were returned for an average of just 19.0 yards, second in the NFL. Certainly, he needs to up his game in the field goals department. Per the Football Outsiders’ numbers, the Redskins’ field goal-extra point performance was by far the worst in the NFL (it was -15.6; the Saints had the second-worst at -5.5). But the punt coverage was worse as four punters, Josh Bidwell (3 games), Gano (one game), Hunter Smith (9 games), and Sam Paulescu averaged 40.6 yards a punt and saw their kicks returned for an average of 12.6 yards, second worst in the NFL.
(Update: For 2011, FO had the Redskins' special teams DVOA at -1.2%, 21st in the league. In 2012 it was -4.0%, 27th in the league. These numbers are not included in the figures below but as you can see they certainly don't help the statistical picture of Smith's overall results.)
Overall, less than average Over his seven years, Smith’s special teams have an average DVOA of -0.9 and an average overall placement of about 20th in the league. That certainly would lead one to conclude that his reputation as an excellent special teams coach exceeds the actual performance of the special teams units on the field. To sum up the best and worst areas per Football Outsiders noted above, the Redskins have been consistently good at kickoff returns (best area four times) and kickoff coverage (2 times). The consistent problem areas have been punt returns (3 times) and punt coverage (2 times). In defense of Smith, let’s compare his first four years with the Redskins, all of which were with Joe Gibbs, with the last three years under Jim Zorn and Mike Shanahan. With Gibbs, the special teams had an average DVOA of -0.3 and an average rank of 17th in the league.
If you throw out the first season as a learning year, the DVOA with Gibbs jumps to 1.0 and the average ranking is 12th. Post Gibbs, the DVOA is -1.67 with an average of 25th in the league. While all coaches pay lip service to special teams, Gibbs had a track record of practicing what he preached. He gave Smith unprecedented authority when it came to the roster. Smith chose the punter and the kicker and he even had a lot of influence over the final few roster spots so that he could ensure that some core special teams players would be available. It appears that when Gibbs left Smith’s authority over personnel diminished considerably.
To take one example, is it even conceivable that Smith would have cut Frost, who had done solid work for him, at the end of training camp in 2008 in favor of the rookie Brooks? It seems far more likely that the decision was made by Vinny Cerrato, the general manager who drafted Brooks. Would Smith have cut Suisham for one miss, albeit a critical one, against the Saints when he had missed just three field goals through 12 games and was kicking off well? Or was that decision made impulsively well over Smith’s head?
On the other hand, coaches are supposed to coach the players that they have available to them. That especially tends to be the case around the league when it comes to special teams. Thos units rarely get prize free agent acquisitions and have to deal with coverage teams composed of players chosen by other coaches. And yet Smith’s Redskins units have been in the top 10 in the NFL just once and in the bottom 10 three times. Those three times in the bottom 10 are the past three years. In the area of “what have you done for me lately”, Danny Smith’s resume is rather bare.