Not every personnel decision the Redskins made this offseason has worked out. But one have they made a game into the season has proven to be a stroke of genius.
After their Week 1 loss to the Dolphins, Scot McCloughan and Jay Gruden decided to move on from Kai Forbath, the team’s kicker since early in the 2012 season. Despite his impressive field goal accuracy of 87 percent, his below-average leg strength was an issue they decided they could no longer live with. In 2014 he was 31st in the league in both the percentage of kickoffs that resulted in touchbacks (33 percent) and in net kickoff average (40.7 yards).
In addition, the lack of leg strength made it hard for his coaches to trust him on long field goals. In his first two years in the league he tried four field goals of 50 yards or longer and made two. In the last two seasons, Mike Shanahan and Jay Gruden decided to either punt or go for the first down rather then trot Forbath out there for a 50-plus yard field goal.
So after Week 1 it was exit Forbath, enter Dustin Hopkins, who had never played in the NFL. He has boomed 72 percent of his kickoffs for touchbacks and most of them have at least reached the end zone.
In five games as the Redskins kicker he already has two field goals of over 50 yards, as many as Forbath had in 41 games in Washington. Both were impressive. A 52-yarder in the Georgia Dome tied the game with Falcons with two seconds left in regulation.
Although the Redskins lost in overtime, Gruden was very pleased that Hopkins made his first real clutch kick of his short career.
“You’re talking about the total package of being a kicker — the long field goals and the kickoffs — and I think he [Hopkins] has proven that he’s pretty good,” Gruden said the day after the Atlanta game. “He made a huge kick yesterday. He missed one, a long one, but he made one [in] clutch, crunch time, which we were all curious – will he make that kick in a big-time situation, big-time game? He knocked it through there, so that’s exciting — exciting for him and exciting for us moving forward knowing that he’s got that experience in him now and he can make it.”
Last week he navigated the tricky winds in MetLife Stadium to boot a 54-yarder with a few yards to spare.
Gruden also has been impressed with something we have only seen once in a game.
“He’s been outstanding,” Gruden said of Hopkins. “Kicking the ball off, making field goals, his onside kicks – they’re like magic balls, I don’t know he keeps them in play. I don’t know how we haven’t recovered one yet. He’s an amazing onside kicker, but he’s done excellent.”
He has attempted one onside kick, in the fourth quarter against the Jets. The ball made it past the front line and it looked like a couple of Redskins had a shot at it before the Jets recovered. But apparently Gruden has been wowed with the onside kicks in practice. It is likely that Hopkins’ talent will be called upon again as the season goes on.