“I know it starts with me,” the offensive coordinator would later say.
He had never been shut out before as a football coach. Neither had his father, Coach Mike Shanahan.
As he found his seat toward the front of the plane, Kyle Shanahan wasn’t especially eager to relive the misery of a 23-0 loss to the Buffalo Bills, but he had no choice. He wanted to take it all in right away, before the chartered plane touched down at Dulles Jet Center.
As he studied the film, the problem in front of him wasn’t an easy one: What is wrong with the offense? and Can it be fixed?
The Redskins’ offense is a complex one, with a lot of moving parts, a playbook that changes weekly and coaches who aim to be as aggressive as any player on the field. When the offense struggles, the explanations are usually simple: a player didn’t execute an assignment, he’s not capable of executing it or the play was either a bad design or wrong for the situation.
But football analysts who have reviewed film of the Redskins’ recent woes say the team’s offensive struggles don’t lie with the scheme, the game plan or the play-calling. Rather Shanahan has assembled a roster that is not nearly as capable or talented as his past teams.
“If you win, everything’s great. But if you lose, everything is magnified. And what’s magnified right now is the lack of talent in Washington,” said Dave Razzano, an NFL scout for nearly a quarter-century with the 49ers, the Rams and the Cardinals. “Schemes aren’t going to do it; you’ve got to have the players.”
Washington’s offense has been ravaged by injuries. The Redskins used the same offensive starters each week of their 3-1 start. They’ve since had a different lineup every Sunday, losing their past three games by a combined score of 76-33. Compared with Week 1, they will likely take the field Sunday against San Francisco with different starters at seven offensive positions.
As he did in Denver, Shanahan plays a major role in all personnel decisions. Though he has been in Washington for all of 22 months, Shanahan is not exactly working with leftover parts. He has overhauled the roster in 11 / 2 seasons and is mostly relying on players he selected. Of the 25 healthy players on offense, only five predate Shanahan in Washington. And of Sunday’s projected offensive starters, only tight end Fred Davis and lineman Will Montgomery were on the 53-man roster before Shanahan came to town. Those who have been forced into starting roles were handpicked by the head coach to play in this scheme.
“Everybody knows there’s nobody to game-plan for,” said one longtime NFL executive who has reviewed film of the Redskins. “Scheme can only take you so far.”
Added Razzano: “He’s never had a top-flight personnel guy. He’s one of those guys who thinks he can do it all.”
After watching film on the plane ride home last Sunday, Kyle Shanahan felt the Redskins should have been competitive with the Bills. When the players reported to work Monday morning, he had a plan. He put together 25 mistake-riddled plays from the shutout for them to review. They were all missed opportunities, any one of which, Shanahan felt, could have changed the course of the game.
The Redskins’ missed chances began with their first play of the game. Wide receiver Anthony Armstrong sprinted past Bills cornerback Drayton Florence on a deep route, beating him on the inside. Quarterback John Beck’s first look was at Armstrong, but instead he dumped off the ball to wide receiver Jabar Gaffney. What could have been a big gain to start the game was instead a three-and-out possession.
“We just missed it,” Kyle Shanahan said.
Shanahan liked the play. And Beck knew well ahead of time that Armstrong would be his first look.
“The disturbing thing about that is,” said the longtime NFL executive, “the first play of the game is scripted and the belief is that it’s going to work. You have to have a good reason not to throw it.”
“And the thing about the Shanahans,” he continued, “they’re always good at designing plays at the beginning of the game. The first 15 is legendary with them.”
On Monday, offensive players sat in an auditorium and cringed at each botched block, each missed blitz pickup, each imprecise route. When a team is saddled with injuries, any room for error disappears.
“That’s what led to a shutout. It’s one guy here, it’s one guy there — everybody had their part,” Kyle Shanahan said.
When analysts and defensive coaches study film of the Redskins, the quarterback position is the one they keep coming back to. Mike Shanahan came to Washington with a reputation for high-powered, quarterback-friendly offenses.
Beck enters Sunday’s game against San Francisco with eight career games under his belt. He is still searching for his first win.
“He’s a backup who might be able to come in and win games for you if everything else around him is really good,” said Brian Baldinger, an NFL Network analyst who did color commentary on last week’s national radio broadcast of the Redskins game and will serve as analyst again for Sunday’s game. “ . . . From what I’ve seen, I don’t think there’s any part of him that’s a front-line starting quarterback in this league.”
“I don’t know what Shanahan was thinking getting these guys,” said Razzano, the longtime NFL scout. “They don’t have a starting quarterback on the roster right now, and it’s too bad because he’s a good coach.”
Offenses that might be lacking in a passing attack will often fall back on the running game. The 49ers, for example, have the NFL’s 31st-ranked pass offense, which averages just 171.4 yards per game. Their ground game, however, is sixth best in the league. It averages 137.6 yards per outing.
The Redskins have notched 100 rushing yards just twice this season. Against the Bills, they had to abandon the run relatively early on and finished with just 26 yards on 12 carries.
“Their whole offense is based on being able to run that stretch play,” said Baldinger, “and then you get play action off of it, the deep shots down the field. . . . You change four players on that line, and it’s a very specific way that you have to block those plays. They’re having a hard time doing that.”
If the Redskins fail to establish a ground game against San Francisco — the NFL’s top-ranked unit against the run — the offense again will rest on Beck’s shoulders.
“I know Shanahan believes in this guy, which is good. You should believe in your people. I know he wants to give him a chance, but some of the things I saw in preseason, I’m seeing here,” said the longtime NFL executive. “ . . . There were questions about Beck’s leadership both in Miami and Baltimore. Do the guys believe in him? It kind of doesn’t look like it.”
In his 18 years as head coach, Mike Shanahan has worked with only four offensive coordinators. He has never had to fire one. Though there weren’t many lean years in Denver with Gary Kubiak at his side, Shanahan knows which way the criticism flows when an offense struggles.
“You’ve got to go after somebody and, after me, it’s the coordinators,” he said.
Kyle Shanahan is more concerned with what leads to the criticism than the criticism itself. “That’s life,” he said. “Anytime you get shut out, I expect to get criticized. I expect it from [members of the media], I expect it from my wife and I expect it from myself. It’s embarrassing.”
While the Redskins focus on the details, hoping to improve a struggling offense, outside observers are starting to ask questions about the bigger picture. Can Mike Shanahan find a quarterback? Can he make his offense work again? And does he have what it takes to lead a team back to the top?
“You just wonder how committed he is right now,” Baldinger said. “Where is he in his whole career? I don’t care if you’re Jeff Fisher or Mike Holm-
gren, the game catches up to you at a certain point and it’s time to step away. You just don’t know.”
Redskins notes: The team placed cornerback Phillip Buchanon on the season-ending injured reserve list and promoted rookie corner Brandyn Thompson back to the 53-man roster.
Staff writers Barry Svrluga and Mike Jones contributed to this report.