Keith Burns won two Super Bowls as an NFL player and special teams demon for Mike Shanahan and the Denver Broncos. The seeds for that success were sewn at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia.
Now he hopes what started in the shadows of Washington DC ends in essentially the same place.
The Washington Redskins lost the longest tenured coach on their staff earlier this off season in Special Teams Coordinator Danny Smith. Smith is a man who the fans loved to criticize and blast, just because he was the convenient target of a sometimes great, sometimes shaky special teams unit over the years.
I have been very outspoken on that issue, and it is clear (as it usually is) the fans opinion and analysis was and is very different than that of the coaches, players and media when it came to Danny Smith. This is also the same fan base that ruthlessly blasted Kyle Shanahan in 2010 & 2011, and hammered Jim Haslett throughout the 2012 season, until a 7-game winning streak took hold.
The Redskins replaced Smith with Burns, who gets his first opportunity as an NFL coordinator.
Burns inherits a good group (by no means a great one in terms of pure talent) that lost their captain in Lorenzo Alexander to unrestricted free agency, but returns everyone else. Make no mistake, Burns doesn't get Shane Lechler in his prime (punter) or Sebastian Janikowski's leg strength (place kicker) or a lights out coverage unit, but this group can get better with a different voice and a fresh approach.
"I think the foundation is here. I think Danny's done a great job. But at the same time, I have a different philosophy than what Danny did. Everything will be new to the guys, but I think they'll like what we're doing," Burns told ESPN 980 last month in his first and only interview since signing on for his new gig.
"I'm going to try and keep it simple so they play fast and play physical football and enjoy playing the game with a lot of swagger, because that's what I played with. You'll see a lot of passion out of the guys, you'll see a lot of enthusiasm. I think that will bleed throughout the whole team," Burns said.
In a few brief conversations with Burns at Redskins Park since the interview and meeting him, I see somebody that is genuine and has a burning desire to be great.
Burns told me over a two-part on-air interview http://bit.ly/17S1qmI (4/16) how he got the job with the Redskins. It was a pretty simple process, but it was interesting to find out that this was not something that was in the works from the start of Shanahan's tenure here in Washington.
"He (Shanahan) got the job here, and when Danny ended up leaving I was like 'I guess it's an opportunity,'" recalling his thought process after Smith returned home to Pittsburgh. "Washington put in a request. I sat down with Mike, did my interview. I think he's had his eye on me for a while."
Shanahan explained that the process was not a targeted mission at first. "When I interviewed Keith as the special teams coach, I brought in a number of people and he blew me away in the interview with how organized he was and his teaching progression to all of the coaches as a teacher. He’s very organized with his thoughts. He has a very solid scheme. He’s got a lot of passion for what he does. And that’s why we hired him.”
Shanahan gave him a shot in coaching, and Burns told ESPN 980 he hopes to pay him back. "Getting my start for him was incentive enough. It took four years later, but at the same time good things happen to good people. Hopefully, I'll be able to reward him with a great special teams unit."
When Shanahan arrived in Washington, Burns was one of the names that I had circled as a guy who would potentially be added to the coaching staff and probably right away. He was already the assistant special teams coach with the Denver Broncos, and he was retained by Josh McDaniels. I thought it was a surprise in 2010 that Burns was not added to the initial Shanahan staff.
It wasn't meant to be because it would have been a lateral position move (once Shanahan decided to retain Danny Smith) and the team then hired Richard Hightower to assist Smith and also the defensive game planning.
Burns was a hungry player whose appetite was filled by Super Bowl rings and he made contributions that never were given enough credit. Be honest. Who do you remember from those Shanahan - Broncos teams? Guys named Elway, Davis, Smith, McCaffrey, Sharpe and more. Not Burns. Unless you highly value the impact specials makes. To me it's more than one-third of the game in today's day and age, so philosophy is important.
"We gotta put guys in the right position to allow them to make plays either in the return game or in the coverage unit. I want us to be a scrappy group, a physical group to go out there and create turnovers. As a return team, you want to take care of the ball number one and get the ball down field and get those hidden yardage that you really don't see until the end of the game," Burns told ESPN 980.
So how do you get young players to get better? "Just being disciplined, cut down on a lot of the penalties that will allow us to have positive plays and positive yardage in the kicking game."
Discipline is important, along with accountability. That starts with Burns who knows that he has to get players attention because of the tremendous respect they had for his predecessor "It's really not about me...I don't think as the Washington Redskins unit, it's not going to be win or lose games, it's going to be really to not mess it up. We will have our opportunities to make big plays. The biggest thing is we got to take care of the ball. If we get that emphasis across to the guys, we take care of the ball, only good things can happen."
In Denver, Burns helped a unit that was in the upper echelon of the league consistently. There is no Trindon Holliday in the return game just yet, or Matt Prater. Heck, there is no Britton Colquitt either. That's where coaching and developing comes in. According to the official press release the Redskins issued when they hired Burns, his unit's accomplishments should bode very well for the burgundy and gold.
The statement read in part "From 2007-12, Burns worked with a unit that accumulated 10 combined punt and kickoff return touchdowns, tied for most in the AFC and second-most in the NFL. In that time period, the Broncos ranked fourth in the AFC and fifth in the NFL in punt return average (10.5 yards per return)."
As if not having Prater, Colquitt or Holliday isn't difficult enough, Burns has an even tougher job than Smith had in some ways because the one major loss the Redskins suffered in free agency was special teams captain Lorenzo Alexander.
"I loved the way that he played. He played that game with passion. I don't think I'll look to replace a guy like Lorenzo Alexander. I don't think you can replace a guy like Lorenzo Alexander, Burns told ESPN 980.
"We have enough guys in that locker room that will step forward. We'll get another leader out of that bunch. A leader will step forward, and we'll just have the best guy out there."
My vote? Reed Doughty. I haven't hid from this position. It would be a flat out embarrassment if Doughty is not elected by his peers to be the new special teams on-field leader. Doughty will be a leader regardless, but this really isn't a debatable topic in my eyes.
"He's a leader, disciplined, a hard worker," Burns said about Doughty.
Doughty was 2nd on the team in special teams tackles (22) to Alexander's 31 according to coaches film stats. Doughty was 2nd to Alexander with 13 tackles in 2011. He was 3rd behind Alexander and Chris Wilson in 2010.
Niles Paul and Darrel Young figure to have huge roles on the Redskins special teams units this season. Paul had 16 tackles last year and is known for his ferocious ability to cover and close, but he can always continue to improve with more seasoning.
"I like everything I've seen. There's a couple of things that I can teach him (Paul)," Burns said. No doubt everybody can get better, but Burns feels Paul is on track for something more just in terms of coverage ability.
"What he's done the last two years, is just about as good as anybody in the league," Burns told ESPN 980. Paul finished last year as the primary kick returner replacing an ineffective Brandon Banks, and had 13 returns for a 21.8 average, and a long of 48. That return came against Dallas in the regular season finale, and if not for a questionable holding penalty on Chris Wilson in Philadelphia, Paul would have had another 40 plus yard return under his belt.
Still, nothing is set in stone for Paul or the guy who ended the year as the Redskins primary punt returner, Richard Crawford.
"Oh no. Every job is wide open. I'm the new guy. Everybody starts on a clean slate. Nobody actually has a job. Every job on the special teams unit will be earned. Nothing will be given to anybody. Every job is wide open," Burns told me.
This is a notion that the 2nd year cornerback from SMU (Crawford) backed up at OTA's last week, "There's no given position. To me, I'm not the starter. I have to earn that spot."
Crawford helped win the Baltimore game in overtime for the Redskins, and clearly Paul and Crawford represent a significant upgrade over Banks who never was the same after his knee surgery in November of 2010. Now the question is, can they get better?
The belief is there, and perhaps a coach like Burns can bring it out of them. "Keith is a great coach. You see it in Denver, what he did with Trindon Holliday, and those returners. He knows what he's doing. We just have to buy in to it and do it. I already bought in to what he's talking about so I'm trying to improve on what he wants me to improve on," Crawford said.
If you are looking for a long shot returner option with some potential, undrafted free agent WR Skye Dawson has turned some heads with his speed and knack for big plays in limited time during OTA's.
The Redskins were never able to find a consistent place kicker under Danny Smith. After releasing Graham Gano and Neil Rackers at the end of training camp last year, Washington went with Billy Cundiff. That worked about as well as the infamous "swinging gate" play under Jim Zorn, and it led to another change at placekicker.
Enter Sandman? Nope, try Kai Forbath. Forbath in his first NFL regular season experience did not miss a field goal attempt until the final game of the regular season on a chilly late December night. He was (17-18) overall and a perfect 12-for-12 from 40-plus yards.
"I would consider him my 'silent assassin,'" Burns told ESPN 980. "He had a great year. He doesn't really say much, he just goes out and gets the job done," Burns said.
Forbath liked the 'silent assassin' tag that Burns gave him when I mentioned it, but he also appreciates his new leader's approach. "It's been pretty smooth. He's not a guy that came in here and tried to change our technique. He know's it's our craft and we work on it. It's been great so far."
One area that could be cause for concern is distance on kickoffs for Forbath. Clearly leg strength is not his calling card as opposed to accuracy.
Sav Rocca, was re-signed to a two-year deal by Washington to provide a steady presence. If Rocca makes it to year four of his tenure in DC, that might surprise some observers because he is 39 and dealt with a nagging knee injury. However, Burns still likes what he has to work with saying that Rocca has a "big leg. He's a boom guy. I just gotta get used to the accent."
Welcome to the club on that one, Keith. Rocca fought thru the injury last year to average a gross of 43.9 and a net of 37.2, with 22 punts downed inside the 20-yard line on 68 boots. Not the best year by any means, but it was not an eye-sore.
Burns also has Nick Sundberg, the most famous long-snapper in the NFL. His football bravery caught the eye of his new coach early on. "You can't ignore his toughness. Anytime you got a long snapper that's willing to snap with a broken arm, that says a lot about him. Hopefully everybody on the team will take that lead and play with the same heart that he plays with," Burns said on ESPN 980.
Never one to shy away from an opinion, Sundberg weighed in on going from the old school of Smith to the new school of Burns. "Transition is always difficult. I think it's something when you've had one coach for a while and a new coach comes in, it's just about learning his ways. Not everybody does things the same way. We're just getting to know each other still at this point, learning from each other every day and trying to get better."
The Redskins overall on special teams did not rate very highly because of the struggles at placekicker early in the year and the lack of spark Banks provided. According to Football Outsiders (http://bit.ly/ajGvkj) Washington ranked 27th in "special teams DVOA" (a confusing measurement system) at -4.0%. In 2011, they ranked 21st in that category.
The team had a much better and more representative "weighted DVOA" to finish at -0.1% and 16th overall in the league.
Either way you look at it, the Redskins need to improve in several key areas if they are going to take the next step. While the NFC Champion San Francisco 49'ers ranked 20th in special teams DVOA, the Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens ranked # 1 by a WHOPPING margin. The Ravens had an even 9.0% which was high above the next ranked team in the league, Cleveland.
I might be a complete football nerd or perhaps an ignorant fool, but there is NO mistake made when you look at Baltimore's success and make the correlation to excellent special teams play in 2012. The bottom line is this. Billy Cundiff cost them a chance at the Super Bowl in the AFC Championship the year before, they got rid of him and added Jacoby Jones and a young but talented leg in Justin Tucker. Problem solved, at least for one year.
For Burns, that march begins now. "Guys are talking about winning the Super Bowl, but are they willing to put in the work?" Burns asks. "They got a taste of it here last year. It starts with the off-season workouts, wanting to do it for that one common goal. At the end of the day, that's all that really matters."
The young man who evolved into a champion has come home to tie the package together in a pretty bow. He has a golden opportunity in a football and championship starved town, to be a piece of Redskins lure forever.
"I kinda know what every Redskins fan wants and expects out of their team. Growing up here, I know the enthusiasm that every Redskin fan has about the Washington Redskins. I know we have the fans backing us, it's all about guys just being committed. I think we have a great coaching staff to be able to do that. Who's willing to put in the time to go out there and win a Super Bowl?"
That has to be music to many Redskins fans ears. Burns' intentions are very clear. The Vince Lombardi Trophy is coming home, if he has anything to do with it.
Chris Russell -- SFTheRooster@Yahoo.com - www.twitter.com/russellmania980.