As the Washington Redskins begin the second half of the season, Kyle Shanahan’s unit very much remains a work in progress, and the offensive coordinator admittedly still is experimenting with how to best tailor the system to the strengths of quarterback John Beck.
Although the offense has managed only a total of 31 points in the three games that Beck has started, Shanahan described himself as happy with the improvements he sees in the fifth-year pro, who hadn’t played since his rookie year.
Beck at times has held onto the ball too long, which has led to sacks and other missed opportunities. At other times, he has settled for check-down passes too quickly, which cost his team a chance to strike on downfield plays. But Shanahan chalks those miscues up to growing pains.
“When quarterbacks don’t play a lot, you know they’re going to miss some stuff,” Shanahan said. “I’ve been happy with John. He has learned from his mistakes – stuff he’s struggled with each week. He’s done a good job of eliminating those the next week. Yeah, there definitely are some times that he missed some reads in the game. I think he’ll get better with that.”
Four weeks ago, Beck looked sharp as he took Rex Grossman’s place for the fourth quarter of Washington’s loss to Philadelphia and led his team on a scoring drive. He had an overall solid game the following week against Carolina – throwing for a touchdown and rushing for another – but then looked tentative and struggled mightily the next game against Buffalo. Last week against the 49ers, Beck made a concerted effort to try to move his offense by using short, quick passes, and was sacked only once, which Shanahan said indicates improvement, although points remain hard to come by.
As Beck becomes more comfortable with executing the system in game conditions, Shanahan’s trust and understanding of the quarterback gradually improves as well.
“I’m learning about him a lot,” Shanahan said. “I thought he played his best when he came in versus Philly. I thought he played his best at Carolina. I thought it was his worst at Buffalo and I thought he played better versus San Francisco than he did at Buffalo, but still not good enough. He’s been a little different in each game. There’s been some growing pains. But I think he can get better. He’s shown he can improve in areas, and I know John is a tough guy. The physicality of the game doesn’t bother him. He’ll hang in there. He can throw it, too. I know he’s smart enough to read the defenses. I think just give him some time and allow him to develop and I expect him to get better each week.”
But a degree of experimentation remains as Shanahan still hasn’t figured out a way to completely tailor the offense to Beck.
“I can’t just say that in a total absolute,” the play-caller said. “Each game has been totally different. He’s done one thing in one game really good and the next game he’s struggled in that area. So I’m still trying to figure out exactly who he is and I think he is, too. It takes time with a quarterback. They’ve got to find their niche.”
Shanahan hopes that Beck can begin delivering with some big plays – an element that the offense has lacked since Grossman was benched. Against Buffalo, Beck overthrew receivers on deep routes. And last week he rarely looked deep because the 49ers played a soft zone defense, which kept the safeties farther downfield so the Redskins would have to settle for passes underneath. Shanahan said San Francisco forced Washington to attempt to methodically move its way down the field because the offense was missing go-to pass-catchers like Santana Moss and Chris Cooley, and also was lacking a consistent rushing attack.
“Unless you can make some unbelievable plays [with check-down passes], you want to throw touchdowns every play and you hope that they can get aggressive enough that there can be some holes in the defense and attack them,” said Shanahan, whose offense last Sunday had only one play for longer than 16 yards (and that was a 17-yard gain that came after Roy Helu caught a batted ball and ran with it). “When they’re playing soft, you’ve got to be able to hit the backs. Not just the backs, but underneath routes to try to pull people up to open up holes deep.
“It’s really important,” Shanahan said of producing some big plays. “It’s been something that I’ve always believed in and something that I feel like I’ve always gotten. We haven’t been getting them the last few weeks. [We’ve] struggled to get it a lot all year. It really helps out your offense and it takes the pressure off. It’s tough to get 12-play drives together. When you can get a big play, it really changes the game.”