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Thursday, December 16, 2010
Hunter Smith: Skins done him wrong

By Gene Wojciechowski
ESPN.com

Hunter Smith
Wet football. High snap. Slippery hands. Lost job. Hunter Smith deserved better from the Redskins.

Just when you think the NFL can't get colder than dry ice, along comes Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan spreading Christmas cheer and freezer burn.

The Redskins have lost three in a row and five of their last six games and have zero chance of reaching the playoffs -- again. They're ranked last in total defense and 28th out of 32 in scoring offense. And how's that Albert Haynesworth contract working out, fellas?

So what does Shanahan do? He cuts the punter.

Hunter Smith
In good weather and bad, Smith has handled all but two long snaps in his 12-year career.

Hunter Smith was the cuttee. The 12-year veteran was called to Redskins Park on Tuesday. He met with Shanahan, general manager Bruce Allen and special teams coach Danny Smith and was given his walking papers. By the time he got to his locker, it had already been stripped clean.

Cold.

But he's just a punter, right? Just another two-line entry in the sports section's agate page. One expendable guy replaced by another expendable guy, Sam Paulescu.

Smith, who doubled as the holder on kicks, is gone because he wasn't able to handle the high snap of a wet, slick football in the waning seconds of the Redskins' game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Sunday. Instead of an extra point and overtime, the Redskins left FedEx Field with a 17-16 loss and a 5-8 record.

Someone had to pay. And that someone was Smith.

"At the end of the game, when the whole portrait was finished and it was time to sign our name at the bottom of the painting, I misspelled our name," Smith said Wednesday in a phone interview. "I didn't finish the job."

That's true, sort of. But Nick Sundberg also couldn't spell. He's the guy who snapped it helmet-high to Smith. And Graham Gano missed field goals of 34 and 24 yards and barely curled in an extra point earlier in the game. And Shanahan's offense had first-and-goals from the 8-, 6-, 5- and 2-yard lines but could only score two touchdowns.

Shanahan still has a job, though his first year as Redskins coach has been a pool-emptying belly flop.

Gano still has a job.

So does Sundberg.

Meanwhile, designated scapegoat Smith is unemployed and trying to draw a smiley face on a cruel situation.

"I'm sitting at the kitchen island at my house with my son eating milk and cookies," Smith said. "So it's a pretty good afternoon."

Mike Shanahan
It's been a rocky first season in D.C. for Mike Shanahan. Any wonder his countenance is dark?

I had been warned about Smith.

"He'll blow you away; he's such a good guy," said his agent, Tom Mills. "I called, and he's comforting me."

Smith isn't why the dysfunctional Redskins are 5-8, playoff no-shows and on the hook for $41 million guaranteed to defensive tackle Haynesworth. He isn't why the Redskins have exactly one postseason victory this decade or why the Daniel Snyder ownership era has been Tina Fey-funny. Nobody makes more money off more losing than Snyder.

But Snyder isn't going to fire himself. And Shanahan isn't going to resign anytime soon. So let's blame this latest loss on Smith, who has mishandled a grand total of two snaps in his career -- the one in Sunday's game and the one in the 2006 Super Bowl when he played for the Indianapolis Colts. Both games were in the rain.

"It's a ruthless business," Smith said.

There were grumbles about Smith's punting, but go back and look at the Bucs' return yardage in Sunday's game. Negligible. Look at where the Redskins are ranked in punting -- eighth.

No, Smith was canned because a wet, just-out-of-the-box football slipped through his raised hands. Of course, had Gano made one of his two earlier chippies, it wouldn't have mattered. And by the way, there's no guarantee Washington would have won the game in OT.

The Redskins had a choice. They could have said, "Smith is a veteran, a high-character guy, a solid punter and a good holder. He couldn't hang on to this one, but we're going to stick with him." Instead, they punted him out of the league.

"Well, it's not a decision I would have made," Smith said. "It's not a pattern of on-field behavior or anything like that for me to drop snaps. ... It seems a little bit unjust to me. But it also seems a little unjust that the Washington Redskins would fight back to tie the game and the holder would drop the ball. I can't be too angry [with the Redskins] because it was a mistake I made, and I take responsibility for it."

Hunter Smith
Smith wasn't having a great season as a punter -- he ranked 25th in the league, individually -- but did he deserve to be cut?

Sorry, but blaming Smith for the defeat is like blaming your busboy for a bad meal. On one play, he was 25 percent of a bad equation: high snap + wet ball + slippery hands + shaky kicker = PAT disaster.

The truth is the Redskins have 100 more-pressing priorities than Hunter and his twice-every-12-years missed snaps. There's the Haynesworth saga. The mushrooming Donovan McNabb quarterback controversy. A defense ranked at or near the bottom of every meaningful statistical category.

When I mentioned that to Smith, he began laughing. "I agree with you," he said.

He was kidding. He said his missed catch of a high snap has nothing to do with a Haynesworth pouty-fit or a McNabb incompletion. But ...

"It's like this: If I had 10 of those snaps to hold again with the same trajectory and speed -- and I didn't know they were coming -- if I'm really honest with myself, I'd probably catch five or six of them," he said.

In the background, I could hear his 5-year-old son, Josiah. Time for more milk and cookies. But before we ended the call, Smith wanted to make something clear.

"I do apologize to the fans of the Washington Redskins," he said. "They've been through some pretty dark times lately. I don't take this lightly."

It'll get darker without stand-up guy Smith, who deserved the same second chance Gano and Sundberg got. But that's how it goes in the NFL and in cold, cold Shanahanland.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

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