Washington Redskins special teams coach Ben Kotwica demonstrates a drill during practice Sunday at the team's NFL football training facility. (Alex Brandon / AP)
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RICHMOND, VA. — After practice on Military Appreciation Day at Washington Redskins training camp, the special teams coordinator made a beeline to the people in uniform near the special VIP tent.
Ben Kotwica used to be one of them. He was a AH-64 Apache pilot who flew more than 1,000 combat hours during the Iraq War.
He now works with men who play games. NFL players love to speak of “battle” and “war” on the playing field; Kotwica knows the real thing.
“I think the parallels that get drawn sometimes between war and football get a little bit exacerbated,” he said.
That’s not to say he hasn’t drawn from his military experiences, or used the occasional military term, during his rise in the NFL coaching ranks. After his service — which also included stints in Bosnia-Herzegovina and South Korea — he worked his way up to special teams coordinator over seven seasons with the New York Jets and this year joined the Redskins, perhaps the most significant hire made by new coach Jay Gruden.
“He’s very organized. He is to the point, doesn’t beat around the bush,” Gruden said. “I think players respect him a lot in that regard.”
Special teams is about motivation and organization, getting a diverse group of talents to buy into the least glamorous segment of the game. Given his background, it would be only natural for Kotwica to excel at both. At his first speech in front of the team in the spring, he invited the players to join his “special forces.” The speech is already approaching legendary status within the organization.
“He had us so pumped up in there from his speech, I raised my hand,” quarterback Robert Griffin III said. “I was ready to run down on kickoffs.”
Kotwica has his work cut out for him. The Redskins special teams units last year were arguably among the worst in NFL history.
Among ousted coach Mike Shanahan’s many miscues during a 3-13 season included his decision to bring in old colleague Keith Burns, who was overmatched from the start. The Redskins’ coverage and return units ranked near the bottom in nearly all major categories. Football Outsiders uses a complex formula to come up with a number that combines all special teams units; Washington’s score was minus-11.9, far and away the worst of the league.
“It was embarrassing. It was real embarrassing,” said tight end Niles Paul, one of last year’s few special teams standouts. “We lost quite a few games last year just based on special teams. Changes had to be made, obviously. We’ve got guys in here that actually want to be on the teams and who know their role on this team.”
The Redskins added several players with solid special teams backgrounds during free agency, but Kotwica is the major difference. He is loud and animated on the field and works hands-on, whether it be lining up in a three-point stance to give rushing tips or swinging a tetherball attached to the crossbar as part of a punt-blocking drill.
“I’m never going to overstep my boundaries with Coach Kotwica,” Gruden said. “Hell, he intimidates me. I’m going to leave him alone.”
Kotwica said the Army helped him understand how to handle “a bunch of different people from a bunch of different backgrounds” to carry out a common goal.
Just don’t expect him to call it a war. Griffin, whose parents both served in the Army, appreciates the sensitivity over such vocabulary.
“The only thing I’ve always said is there’s no bullets flying out here,” Griffin said. “Yeah, we are, as a team per se, going to ‘war’ together on the field, but it’s really not a war. I think it’s just a play on words that players use, and it’s not offensive to the military families, but I understand at least where he’s coming from. It is not war. He’s been in war. My dad’s been in war. So they understand what it really means.”