Thomas Boswell
Thomas Boswell
Columnist

Redskins’ offense pales to unit of 20 years ago

You don’t even have to be 30 years old to remember. And that’s part of the problem. It was only 20 years ago that the Washington Redskins were still great, when they won a Super Bowl, when they only gave up nine sacks in a whole season, not 10 sacks in one game. The Redskins averaged 30 points a game in 1991 — that’s not so very long ago. Now, they get shut out one week and the next, they don’t cross the opponent’s 30-yard line until 2 minutes 12 seconds are left to play.

That’s part of the pain, the anger, that starts rumbling out of the upper deck at FedEx Field on afternoons like Sunday when the Redskins, with the game bleeding away, trailing 19-3 with less than three minutes to play, throw dump and dink passes as the San Francisco 49ers think, “Thank you. Please, call that play again. Run the clock out for us. Strangle yourselves.”

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The problem is not that a few people remember those not-so-old glory days. It’s that most Redskin fans, the large majority, still do. The taste of triumph — the sweet teamwork and precision of it — isn’t entirely gone yet.

Everyone who has spent two decades in the Redskin coal mine gets to choose his own time and place to heave down the pickax and scream into the darkness, “When does this eon of bad football end?” Then, the next week, you turn the lamp on your miner’s helmet back on and watch again.

But the not-dead-yet memory of truly excellent football is part of the mixture of frustration and fan exhaustion that engulfs a game like Sunday’s 19-11 defeat, the Redskins’ fourth loss in a row, when even reaching the red zone is a fantasy until it’s almost too late to care.

How much have the Redskins improved since last year? Are they now regressing? And what realistic destination can you possibly set for yourself as long as your only choice of drivers is John Beck or Rex Grossman?

Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan says his team is making progress, though injuries have made his offense “inconsistent.” Perhaps during the last two weeks with Beck at quarterback, “nonexistent” would be more accurate.

“We’ve improved in a lot of areas. Right now if you look at the offense — it’s tough to take,” Shanahan said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys with some talent that right now are collectively not on the same page. But with all of this valuable experience . . . hopefully, it pays off shortly.”

Perhaps what hurts Redskins followers most is that when Shanahan talks about “progress” and “gaining experience,” or linebacker London Fletcher says, “we had the three best practices this week that we’ve had all season,” people in Washington actually know how small (though essential) these signs of a better future really are and how far the Redskins actually still have to go. They remember what “good” and “great” actually look like.

It doesn’t look anything like what was at FedEx Field against a San Francisco team that’s 7-1 now, but last year was 6-10, just like the Redskins.

Sometimes you get symbolic moments you don’t really want. On Sunday, you still saw a “Monk” jersey marching into the antiseptic oval in Prince George’s County. Twice in his career, Art Monk caught 13 passes, a team record. On Sunday, rookie Roy Helu caught 14 to break the mark. Good for him. Nice job. But he did it on 14 “checkdown” passes that helped the 49ers almost as much as they did the Redskins.

Twenty years ago, when Monk was setting his marks (he gained 230 yards in one of his 13-catch games), the Redskins won by scores of games 45-0, 34-0, 23-0, 42-17, 56-17, 41-14 and 34-17. Then they crushed playoff foes 102-61. They scored 30 touchdowns passing, 21 rushing and five more just on various “returns.” Touchdowns, dozens of them, remember that?

Now, the Redskins have scored 30 points just once in Shanahan’s first 24 games and only twice in Jim Zorn’s two years.

The Redskins, at 3-5, find themselves with a precisely defined, but not impossible predicament. What do you do if you are a team with an above-average defense, above-average special teams and a poor offense that, after injuries, has become truly bad?

Every statistic, as well as our eyes, tells us that the Redskins’ transition to a 3-4 defense has now made them solid enough that, even with floods of turnovers by their offense — 19 in a half season — they don’t get blown out by winning teams like Buffalo last week and the hot 49ers. At minus-eight, the Redskins now have one of the NFL’s worst turnover-takeaway ratios. There is no bigger hurdle in pro football.

The standard answer to the Redskins dilemma is to play to your team’s strengths on defense and in the kicking game (Graham Gano had a 59-yard field goal), not to your own reputation for superior offense or to your preferences for a specific aggressive “scheme.”

Part of the reason the Redskins threw 47 passes while running only 15 times against the 49ers is that San Francisco has the league’s No. 1 defense against the run. But it’s also part of a season-long trend of passing too much for the talent on hand. The Redskins have flirted with the league’s top-10 in pass attempts even though all it has gotten them is the league lead in being intercepted.

Countless teams over the years have pulled in their horns a bit on offense to avoid sacks and turnovers so that the stronger parts of their whole team can have a bigger influence on the outcome. Fletcher doesn’t characterize the three areas of the Redskins team, but when asked what the Redskins need to do, he nailed the answer: “We need to protect the quarterback and protect the football [on offense]. And [on defense] we need to create more turnovers and give the offense better chances.”

Once upon a time (okay, only 20 years ago), the Redskins had vastly higher aims. Someday, they may again. But no time real soon, that’s for sure. For now, the Redskins need to listen to common sense. If the vastly-improved 49ers can actually run more often than they pass, do the Redskins with Beck and Grossman doing the heaving really want to have an offensive “balance” that is more than 60 percent passes?

“Obviously, we’d like everything to go perfectly,” Shanahan said of his first year-and-a-half as coach. “You’d like everyone to be completely healthy and playing at their best and we’re not doing that right now.

“As I told you when I first came here — it wasn’t going to happen overnight.”

On afternoons like this one, we get a true sense of the length of the road ahead of the Redskins to get back to the high place they once called home.

It is measured in years, not games.

 
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