The basic Redskin strategy for the kick-off-return team is to get the ball out to the 30-yard line. "The kickoff return is an organized blackboard play," Levy explains. "Some teams will change theirs week to week to take advantage of an opponent's apparent coverage weakness, but I don't agree with that approach. We have several returns that are basic, and we keep working with them. The timing of our blocks is important, and who you block is 25% of your success. How far back we start our wedge is important too, but I don't want to be specific about that—let the other teams find out for themselves. In general, we use a battering-ram action out to the 30-yard line. If you gel the ball out to the 30, you've done well. The good kickoff return man does not think touchdown. He thinks get to the 30. Then he thinks touchdown."
Other teams operate differently. Coach Don Shula of the Miami Dolphins, who has Mercury Morris as his primary kick-off-return man, says, "Our idea is to break it," while Kansas City Coach Hank Strain says, "If you tell your squad you are satisfied with a return to the 30, the players will think they are doing a good job if they just get back to the 30. With today's kickers having the range they do, it's important for us to try to get to midfield. There we have a real chance of getting three points."
On kickoff-return coverage, the Red skins aim to keep the opposing team inside the 25. Levy says, "The keys are, number one, a high kick, and two, having your players get down the field quickly. Most of our people do the 40-yard dash in 4.7, 4.8, maybe 4.9. If we can hang the kickoff for 4.1 or 4.2 seconds, by the time the ball is caught on the goal line, most of our coverers are inside the 30-yard line and they should meet the ballcarrier around the 15."
A man to watch on the Redskin kick-off-coverage team is Rusty Tillman, an aggressive, intelligent reserve linebacker who plays on all the kicking units. Tillman is "R1" or "R2," the first or second man to the right of the kicker, Curt Knight. Tillman's job is to break up the wedge, the four-man strong-arm crew that is used to protect the ballcarrier. "When some players meet the wedge," Levy says, "they tend to pull up. Rusty sails in full speed and tries to take down two or three, either headfirst or with a side body block." The man who plays "L2," Mike Hull, is a reserve running back who has, in Levy's words, "a knack for knifing through the wedge." In the first four games of the season, Hull, Tillman and company fully met their statistical objective: not one opposing kick returner got past the 25.
On punt coverage, the Redskin objective is to keep the opposing team from making any runback whatsoever. In their first four games, Levy's men had done even better than that; their opponent's average was—0.4 yards per return. Mike Bragg, the Washington punter, has averaged only 39.5 yards, a figure that seems poor, but he hangs his kicks high, allowing his teammates time to get down-field and contain the return men.
Statistically, a punter like Jerrel Wilson of the Chiefs, who has a 48.5 average, looks to be the best in the league, but as Hank Kuhlmann, the Green Bay Packers' new special-team coach, says: "Wilson tends to outkick his coverage." The average return of a Wilson punt is 11.8 yards, which means the Redskin punting game is better than the Chiefs': 39.9 yards to 36.7. As a general rule, AFC punters kick for more distance than those in the NFC—and are more prone to get burned by long returns.
The ideal, says Levy, would be a punter who can kick the ball between 40 and 45 yards and have it in the air for five seconds. "The exceptions are when you are backed against your own goal, which forces you to go for raw distance, or when you are on their 45 and perhaps because of the wind, the score or the dangers involved, you don't want to try for a field goal. Then you want to nudge a punt down inside the 10."
A 42-yard, five-second punt should require a fair catch, but as Levy points out, "The good safety men in the league have their egos. If they're not getting their returns during a game, their ego is going to force them to try. They're like good baseball hitters who will swing at bad pitches. This means the kicking team's chance of recovering a fumble is greater than it should be." With this in mind, the Redskins practice forced fumble drills. "There are several ways of stripping the ball," Levy says. "If we have a return man hung up, we instruct our people to go for the ball, to hit an elbow, to try various little things."
To guard against their own safety men fumbling, the Redskins harass their quite bold kick returners—Duncan and Ted Vactor—in "bother drills." The defenders scream, they poke their fingers in Duncan's and Vactor's faces and they whack them on the helmet. Duncan takes it all as part of the job. He has a lifetime average of 11.8 yards per punt return. "Punts have been good to me," he says.
In practice or in an actual game, Duncan is able to isolate himself as he awaits a punt. "I don't hear a sound," he says, "and my vision is locked in." All he sees is the ball arching down. It is his call: "Me" or "You," himself or Vactor.