The Danny Smith Paradox

For some reason, I decided that what the world really needed was thousands of words about Danny Smith. Jamie was nice enough to publish them here.

Arguments about the NFL tend to involve subtle gradations. The question of if Eli Manning or Joe Flacco is “elite” can occupy a nearly infinite number of segments on sports talk radio. Despite the fact that “elite” as a concept isn’t actually objective or even quantifiable, fans, pundits and (occasionally) players will spend endless hours fine-slicing gradations of “really good” to decide whether a player has earned the imaginary right to use a particular adjective.

Which makes the case of former Redskins special teams coordinator Danny Smith somewhat bizarre, because it requires virtually no fine-slicing whatsoever: There are the people who feel that Smith has been a terrible special teams coach, people who think he’s one of the best at his position and folks who try to walk the (admittedly enormous) line in between.

And, not to overgeneralize, but those three categories can respectively be split pretty cleanly into fans, NFL players (and decision-makers) and media members. What’s more, each group can make a pretty compelling argument in support of their point of view.

Still, it seems impossible that all parties involved can be correct. So I figured I’d talk to each faction and see if I could figure out if there’s some core truth underneath all the impassioned rhetoric.

Pack Shit, Get Out

That’s the official Mr. Irrelevant editorial opinion on Smith, and has been for at least two years. Check out the site’s Winners & Losers column for any game featuring any sort of special teams miscue and you’ll see that phrase –- or its even more succinct form, PSGO –- attached to Smith or one of his players. Usually, though, the blame would fall upward to Smith.

This year’s Week 4 game against Tampa Bay provides a pretty solid case study: then-Redskins kicker Billy Cundiff missed three field goals, including a particularly egregious botch from 31 yards out, before kicking a 41-yard game-winner. Mr. I honcho Jamie Mottram put Cundiff in the Loser category and noted that he was “very close to PSGO status.” Meanwhile, Smith earned a couple of extra letters in his acronym. “Anytime the Skins lose/nearly lose thanks in large part to special teams,” Mottram wrote, “Danny Smith can PSGTFO.”

Chris Chase, who writes about the NFL and other things at USA TODAY Sports and is a die-hard Redskins fan, traces the anti-Smith sentiment back more than five years. “Though the anti-Danny brigade had mobilized long before,” Chase says via email, “the 2007 playoff game was his breakthrough.” Chase is alluding to then-Redskins kicker Shaun Suisham’s miss of a 30-yard, chipshot field goal, which was certainly a nauseating miss. (“It wasn’t even aggravating because it was so predictable. It’s not Suisham’s fault he’s Suisham,” Chase writes. “The crime was bringing him back for another year and then doing it again a year after that!”)

But a few things seem worth mentioning: the Redskins lost that game 35-14. Todd Collins threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns. Smith’s other special teamers played well –- Seattle’s punt return was contained and the Seahawks had just 19 kick return yards. Oh, and Suisham’s miss? Was set up when Seattle botched a kickoff that was disrupted by the wind –- and recovered by Smith’s special teams.

Media Darling

All of which makes me sound like I’m making excuses for Smith. And that, Smith’s detractors will tell you, is part of the problem: the media LOVES Smith, they’ll say, because he’s a good quote. So (the thinking goes) the media constantly goes out of their way to make him look good to make sure he sticks around to provide soundbites.

Rich Campbell, Redskins beat reporter for the Washington Times, takes some issue with that assessment. To put it mildly.

“I like Danny Smith just fine,” Campbell says. “He’s a nice person. He’s engaging when he DOES talk to the media, which is rare, actually.”

But …

“Danny Smith had two kickers released that came to training camp,” Campbell says. “They hired a kicker from the outside; he was cut after five games or whatever. Then the new kicker came in, set the NFL record for most consecutive field goals by a rookie. They benched their return man. And they had the special teams representative at the Pro Bowl. And Danny Smith spoke to the media ZERO times in that span. So this idea that he’s this media darling is not true.”

Smith is garrulous, charming, and a hell of storyteller. If you ran into him at a bar in Ashburn, that’s how he would come across. But in most cases that doesn’t do the media much good. I could find no notable interviews he conducted on his way out of town –- following a NINE-YEAR stint here. He was even known to walk to a side door into the facility to dodge the media after practice.

Player Support

And then there are the players. “I thought he was a phenomenal coach as far as the passion and enthusiasm that he brought each and every day to work and to games,” Redskins linebacker and Pro Bowl special teamer Lorenzo Alexander told me. “In his attention to detail and scheming and coaching technique he was, I think, one of the best in the business.”

Alexander had no real reason to talk to me about this. Smith was already gone for Pittsburgh by the time I called him, so it’s not like he was doing himself any good by talking up his departed coach. And I’m not, obviously, the kind of media member whose request DEMANDS a response. (I’m not actually a media member at all, really, but I’ll get to that later.)

But talk he did, and almost everything he had to say was along those same lines.

Safety Reed Doughty, also a special teams standout, gave me similar answers, for almost identical reasons. “I thought he was an excellent coach,” Doughty says. “His attention to detail, the amount of film he watched, the preparation that he had for us … I mean, we knew what was going to happen.”

Obviously, this is a gulf a bit wider than the one between “Joe Flacco is pretty good” and “Joe Flacco is great.” So what is it that the players are seeing but the fans are missing?

Alexander points first and foremost to the unseen complexity of special teams play. “It’s not contained to, you know, five, 10 yards on a run play,” Alexander says. “It’s spread out. You’ve got guys from sideline to sideline, essentially, that are covering. You can’t look at everybody, see whose technique is good, or why did this guy just tackle, or why did the returner get out, or why he didn’t get out. I think it’s just hard to watch and understand unless you’re, obviously, watching the coach’s tape and looking at it from that perspective.”

Campbell agrees with that assessment. “You’re basically taking the point of attack and moving it 40 yards down the field and resetting it in the middle of a play on special teams,” he says. “There’s a little more chaos, and therefore there’s different types of variables on plays that make the blueprint for special teams success sort of this nebulous concept, where really you just have to sort of prepare and understand tendencies, and other than that you just let your players go run.”

Indeed. If only there were some sort of objective metric that were used in football to measure such things. Some kind of … oh, I don’t know … numerical representation to indicate how a team’s performance had been faring. Some kind of … what’s that, Jamie? Stastistics, you say?

The Statistics Thing

As Mottram points out in the post linked above, the Redskins special teams did not fare particularly well under Danny Smith according to Football Outsiders’ advanced metrics — it’s been six years since their special teams DVOA was even ranked in the top half of the league.

And that would seem to be pretty cut-and-dried. In the post-Moneyball, analytics-heavy, new-statistics era of sports, the data — especially advanced stats like those used by FO — tend to end all discussion. Anyone who disagrees is essentially aligning themselves with fat old guys who chew gum and think with their GUTS, because their GUTS know things that you can’t learn from your fancy little iPads and Facebooks and calculators.

So, in final analysis: Fans are right, players are wrong, the end. Right?

“I’ve seen the DVOA or something else that ranks us, you know, 20th,” Alexander says, “and I think that we rank, like, 31st in some other thing that just popped up. (Ed. note: That would be Rick Gosselin’s special teams rankings for the Dallas Morning News.) But it’s all about what you take into account and how it’s being calculated, and not a game-by-game basis.”

There’s a difference between saying, “It’s all about what you take into account,” and saying, “My gut says that we’re WINNERS, by god!” Alexander is clearly leaning on the former.

“I don’t know how it’s calculated,” he acknowledges, “But if you want to go week-to-week matchups, that’s what’s important. Would I like to finish top-five in everything? Yeah. But I’m all about defeating that team at hand, and winning that matchup for the week, and getting things done in which I think that more times than not, we’re coming out on top as far as our special teams matchups week in and week out.”

So, is it even possible that FO is overlooking something in their rankings that could be adversely affecting the Redskins on a consistent basis?

Actually, it looks like they might be. Here, go read the full-length description of the methodology; for those of you who are just going to tl;dr it, focus on this part (emphases mine):

The kicking or punting team is rated based on net points compared to average, taking into account both the kick and the return if there is one. Because the average return is always positive, punts that are not returnable (touchbacks, out of bounds, fair catches, and punts downed by the coverage unit) will rate higher than punts of the same distance which are returnable. (This is also true of touchbacks on kickoffs.) There are also separate individual ratings for kickers and punters that are based only on distance and whether the kick is returnable, otherwise assuming an average return in order to judge the kicker separate from the coverage.

For the last several years, Danny Smith seems to have favored a kickoff strategy that relies on his kicker inducing a return, and his coverage teams stopping the returner short of the 20. This strategy has been mostly successful, at least based on non-#fancystats: From 2008, the Redskins special teams regularly ranked in the middle of the pack or better in opposing offenses’ starting field position off of kickoffs. Their best ranking in that span was in 2010, when they finished tied for second (23.7 yard line), and their worst was this past season, with they finished 18th (22.1 yard line).

Also in that span, they’ve given up very few big returns (only four across the 50 yard line) and have been good-to-average at keeping opposing returners inside their own 20. Which all fits with the general anecdotal narrative that the Redskins have fielded consistently good kick coverage teams.

Despite those numbers (and corollary anecdotes), it certainly seems to me based on the sections I’ve bolded in the blockquote above that Smith’s kickoff strategy isn’t going to score well in the FO system. So if the generally accepted strength of the Redskins special teams shows up as a negative score in the FO rankings, it stands to reason that the actual weaknesses are going to seem all the more glaring.

The Visible Flaws

It’s not JUST the statistics, of course. There are all the other, visible-to-the-average-fan sort of flaws:  the multiple blocked kicks a couple of seasons ago, the blocked punts at the start of 2012 and the consistent abject lack of a return threat.

The players will mostly tell you that those represent execution errors — here’s Alexander, discussing the blocked punts: “Wasn’t the scheme. It was guys having blown assignments. [Smith] can’t control that. It’s just like, you know, Robert [Griffin III] dropping back, making a bad read and throwing an interception. I mean, is that [offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's] fault? I wouldn’t say so, especially if you’ve seen that look and he’s shown it in practice and you go out and make a bad read. It’s just a player going out there and making a mistake.”

And here’s Doughty, discussing the issues with the returns: “When you don’t do your job and the guy makes a tackle, you say, ‘Oh, it only happened once this game.’ Well, if everybody says that, nobody gets a return. I think there’s some responsibility as far as the guys that are blocking, but there’s also responsibility as far as getting the ball up the field.”

Honestly, you want to hear that from the players. But both of those statements seem to avoid one thing: At some point, Smith has to be considered responsible for getting the right guys out there — especially in the case of, say, a Brandon Banks, who is only on the roster for his presumed ability on returns. Sure, Banks showed some ability during the preseason, and that’s the time for evaluations; it’s understandable that the coaches would want to believe he could produce during the regular season as well. But for two straight seasons — because of injury, because of ability or because of coaching — Banks hasn’t been able to replicate his preseason success when it counts. And yet Danny Smith stuck by him well past the point where nearly all fans were ready to make a switch.

And that, 106.7 The Fan beat reporter Grant Paulsen believes, is where Smith goes wrong. “The one critique that I think is fair of [Smith],” Paulsen told me, “is that some of the guys that he has, in his words, ‘stood on the table for,’ wound up having to be replaced midseason.” Paulsen didn’t mention Banks by name, but to me the implication seems pretty clear.

A Digressive Anecdote

At this point in the proceedings, let me interject a personal anecdote: When the Redskins elected to boot me to the curb, Smith was the first member of the coaching staff who reached out to me. The specific content of his message isn’t important, but he offered both sympathy and any assistance that I might be able to think of asking for. We had always gotten along well –- Smith is, as noted, an exceedingly easy guy to get along with –- but this was an unexpected gesture, and one that I devoutly appreciated on a really crappy day. I had heard about Smith’s loyalty from a number of the players, but this was an opportunity to experience it firsthand.

A coach having loyalty to players is one thing. It is expected, and it is also expedient –- you never know when you might work with these folks again down the line. Reaching out to a deposed team blogger, though … that seemed to me to say something really significant about Danny Smith.

And I think that something is directly correlated to why Redskins fans were so ready to see him leave.

That Significant Something

When I asked for his overall opinion on Smith, Doughty said something to me that seemed at first like a sentimental throwaway line: “He gave me an opportunity. I respect him, and [so does] everybody I’ve known — I’m not talking just me, I’m talking guys seven years back that loved to play for him and play hard for him.”

Alexander took that idea a step farther: “He really gave me my first opportunity to play football, to make this football team. Because I’ve always been a backup, and he really gave me a chance to perform well on special teams.”

I think about those sentiments, and about Smith’s message on my voicemail that Friday in Ashburn. About the fact that the Steelers –- one of the most respected, well-run organizations in football –- had not only hired Smith, but had come after him a second time after missing out in 2009. And, maybe most of all, about the implication of Paulsen’s comment, that Smith had stood on the table for guys when maybe it wasn’t the right idea.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, talking to Steelers.com about what he was looking for in a special teams coach, said, “A guy who can inspire a large group of men. It’s one of the few positions within a staff, other than the head coach, where a guy has the potential to address the larger group on a regularly scheduled basis. So you’re looking for somebody who is a great communicator not only in terms of small groups but also in extremely large groups.”

That’s definitely, unquestionably one of Danny Smith’s strengths. I think it may also be one of his weaknesses. Sometimes, when you stick with a player and let him develop over the course of seven years, he turns out to be Lorenzo Alexander and goes to the Pro Bowl for special teams. Or he turns out to be Reed Doughty –- who, no matter what you think of him on defense, is respected league-wide for his work on the coverage team.

And the list goes on –- Mike Sellers. Kedric Golston and any number of less-notable successes, too –- the Khary Campbells and Horatio Bladeses and Byron Westbrooks of the world.

But so much of what frustrated fans about him could’ve been avoided if he were just a little quicker to cut ties with guys. Banks, of course. Antwaan Randle El, in his waning days. Maybe a few of the kickers and punters over the years, although there were so many of those that it’s difficult to imagine MORE churn.

This answer feels right to me, though, because I feel like it ticks all the boxes: it explains why the players love him. It accounts for some of the more frustrating situations under Smith’s stewardship. It explains why he’s still so well-regarded in league circles. The reason Danny Smith is terrific and the reason he’s sometimes not so terrific all come down to his relationships, and his abilities as a communicator, and — ultimately — the fact that he’s a nice guy.

For Chris Chase, and many other Redskins fans, it doesn’t really matter.  “Two separate people associated with the Redskins have told me this about Danny Smith: ‘You’d love him,’” Chase told me. “Same words. ‘You’d love him.’ I have no doubt about this. I love my niece too, it doesn’t mean I want her in charge of field goal formations.”

10 thoughts on “The Danny Smith Paradox”

  1. You are a godsend, Matt. Thanks for the write-up. I can’t wait to print it up and read it in the toilet and have my girlfriend yell at me taking an hour in there.

    the only thing left this offseason is for DeAngelo to PSGO.

    Viva!

  2. Good writeup. I have to wonder, however, how much blame you can put on the special teams coach in *every* situation. I mean, how many guys on the roster are just there for special teams – punter, kicker, long-snapper? Everyone else is a backup position player first, right? If the team’s philosophy is more for position-player depth and teaching the backups how to do punt coverage, that’ll limit special teams’ performance.

    Also, I don’t really know about the kicker market, but when it was Akers/Cundiff/whoever, it’s not like cutting one crappy kicker meant there was a better one out there. At least now it looks like we might have a guy who’ll stick around a while, but I don’t know how much to blame that on the ST Coordinator. Just sayin’.

  3. …and another point about return threats. Personally, I think the threat of breaking a long run is overrated. I’d much rather have a guy who can consistently give you a longer return than the next guy. (kinda like Barry Sanders. he’s fun to watch dance around and break one every now and then, but if he’d just put his head down and get 4 yards on every play, you’d win more.) Now, the Redskins don’t have that either, but I just get tired of everyone demanding that the kick returner be a threat to go long, when you’d probably be more successful with a different approach.

  4. Wow, I had no idea you were let go from the official blog. It makes a lot of sense though because the content went from great to complete shit.

    Your blog and the video interviews were the only thing worth reading on that site. I’m glad you found a home and I feel like an idiot for being so late on learning about your departure.

    On the bright side… at least on this site you’re getting some comments! Keep up the great work Matt.

  5. @Willy G. – My understanding is that they still got along well, and the rumor always was that Smith didn’t want to cut him. No idea if that’s true. That said, Suisham’s got a slightly elevated cap number next year, so he might be in jeopardy anyhow.

    @arichards – (and several other commenters above) – Thanks for the kind words!

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