WASHINGTON — Not so long ago, the Washington Redskins took extra points and reasonable-range field goals for granted. Their blocking was solid. Their snapper, holder and kicker had been a team through most of the early '80s. Bostic to Theismann to Moseley. It was not poetic, but it worked. The Redskins had it good, better than most teams. In hindsight, perhaps they were spoiled.
Today, after a succession of injuries, slumping kickers, bad snaps and poor blocks, the Redskins would like to think they are close to regaining some semblance of stability in their placement kicking game. But after a year of football disaster, when almost every kick became an adventure, they aren't so sure.
"Coach (Joe) Gibbs must be having nightmares," said Jess Atkinson, kicker No. 3 out of four in the last 14 months. "If you could think of a kicking game that would have everything possible happen to it, we've had it and he's lived through it the last year and a half."
Gibbs crosses his fingers and says he hopes his current kicker, Ali Haji-Sheikh, can remain consistent and all will be fine as the Redskins head into the playoffs. Haji-Sheikh is the man who rode into town in a Volkswagen in September after Atkinson dislocated his left ankle on a hit in the season opener. Atkinson said he is "progressing" but still believes a comeback this season is "a wait-and-see thing."
"I'm here in an emergency if they need me," Atkinson said Thursday at Redskin Park. "But it's Ali's job, and he's doing well."
For those who remember only the shanked extra-point attempts and botched field goals, consider this: Haji-Sheikh has missed only two field goals since the strike ended, a 40-yarder against the New York Jets in the first game back and a 46-yarder against the New York Giants, his old team. He has made 10 field goals in that time.
Haji-Sheikh is credited with only 20 of 23 extra points, but two of the three misses were blocked, one partially against Philadelphia, the other totally against the Giants. Blocking breakdowns were the culprit. The only one he missed outright was against the Los Angeles Rams. It was an extra point sorely needed because the Redskins were forced to go for a touchdown instead of a field goal in a 30-26 loss in the Monday night game.
In his three months on this team, Haji-Sheikh has had three snappers: Jeff Bostic, Darryl Grant and David Jones. He also has watched as Gibbs brought in special-teams help from the outside-consultant Paul Lanham -- to find a solution to the blocking problems.
The kicking breakdown began, oddly enough, the night of Nov. 18, 1985, the game Joe Theismann broke his leg. Theismann was Mark Moseley's long-time holder. Moseley said he never could get comfortable with Jay Schroeder's holds and soon found himself in a slump. He finally was released after missing two extra points and six of 12 field goals in the first six games of 1986.
Gibbs picks up the story: "It started with Mark, a guy you always had and didn't worry about. Then we felt Mark became inconsistent and we started having all kinds of problems. Once you make that change, you're worried. We go to Max Zendejas and that was back and forth, a disaster, for a long period of time."
Zendejas, then a rookie, missed five extra points and five of 14 field-goal attempts in nine games before he was placed on injured reserve. Gibbs: "Then we turn around and get Jess and it's like it all turned around again. I felt real good about it. He's 100 percent. Then, of course, he dislocates his ankle."
Atkinson didn't miss a field goal or extra point in the final regular season game and through the playoffs last season. He said he couldn't have felt more comfortable when he began this season. But on his first extra point, he was injured and carried off on a stretcher. He did make the extra point.
Now, to the present. After bad snaps forced a missed extra point and field goal at Atlanta, Haji-Sheikh has regained at least some of Gibbs' confidence.
"I think Ali's done a heckuva job for us," Gibbs said. "The problem was that first week (in Atlanta), we had problems. That gets everybody real nervous. He's settled down and done a good job since then."
Gibbs knows the Redskins were lucky to have stability for so long. Haji-Sheikh said he isn't surprised the Redskins have been in "a kind of flux." It happens to most teams when they lose a trusted veteran.
"It's something you'll almost take for granted if it's going good," Gibbs said. "Then, all of a sudden, when something happens in that area, it's one of the most important things that's ever happened to you. That thing has gone full circle three times for us in a year. It's figured in probably three big games where an extra point would have won it in the last two years."
Two of those games were one-point losses at Denver last year and at Atlanta this year. The other was an overtime win over Minnesota that would have been won in regulation were it not for Zendejas' three missed extra points.
"To be truthful," Gibbs said, "that's why I kind of worry about change. If you've got a groove going there, somebody that's been there for awhile, like a Moseley and a Theismann, a change is something you really ponder."