When Kyle Shanahan left the Houston Texans — a team with an established quarterback, an all-world wide receiver and a developing running game — for the Washington Redskins, where his father Mike was set to become head coach, he could go over his new roster and find hole after hole. There was no established quarterback. There was no go-to receiver. The running game was in shambles.
“The one thing that I did know,” Kyle Shanahan said, “is we weren’t just one person away.”
As the Shanahans head into the final game of their second season with the Redskins, the offense still is more than one person away. They spent this season toggling between quarterbacks Rex Grossman and John Beck, and neither is considered the long-term solution. Two of their most reliable pass catchers, tight ends Chris Cooley and Fred Davis, were lost to injury and suspension, respectively. Though the running game has shown promise, it still ranks just 26th in the 32-team NFL.
The result is an offense that produces fewer points per game (18.5) than any unit Shanahan ran during his 14-year career in Denver. It leaves the Redskins headed into yet another offseason searching not only for consistent production as a unit, but for the one player who can provide it from the most important position on the field — quarterback. Even the player currently manning the position understands that much of the offseason discussion will center around who will, eventually, replace him.
“I’m not fully naive to the situation,” Grossman said. “I definitely feel like some things are out of my control. But what I can control, I want to make a case for myself.”
That case would likely be anchored in the Redskins’ improvement over the second half of this season, when Grossman took back the job from Beck. After eight games, the Redskins’ offense was all but anemic, averaging 318.1 yards (21st in the NFL) and 15.9 points (27th). Since then, it has averaged 352.1 yards and 21.6 points, ranking 13th and 15th in the league, respectively.
The improvements haven’t resulted in wins. But they have given the offense — which has been without Cooley, Davis, left guard Kory Lichtensteiger, left tackle Trent Williams and running back Tim Hightower for significant portions of the season’s second half — reason to believe that the system the Shanahans have installed will work.
“It allows you to go in, as a quarterback, feeling extremely confident that you feel good about attacking their main coverages,” Grossman said. “And if they don’t have those coverages on for those plays, you still have answers, and it’s a good play. It’s just a well-designed, well-conceived offense that plays off the running game, and I think they do a hell of a job with it.”
It has not, though, done well in one all-important area. The Redskins head into Sunday’s season finale at Philadelphia with 34 turnovers, more than all but two teams. Since their last Super Bowl victory, after the 1991 season, the Redskins have turned the ball over more frequently only twice — in 1994 and 2002, years when they combined to go 10-22.
“The first way you improve the overall record is you can’t turn the football over,” Mike Shanahan said. “So the thing we’ll be stressing next year, like we continue to try to do now, is not turn the football over. Because if you turn the football over like we did this year, regardless of what type of football team you have, you’re not going to win.”
Which turns the conversation back to Grossman and the quarterback position. Grossman has 19 interceptions; he is tied with three others for most in the NFL. Add in his five lost fumbles, and he and San Diego’s Philip Rivers are tied for most turnovers in the league. It is the single development that leaves nearly everyone associated with the franchise — from fans to coaches — wondering about Grossman’s place on next year’s team.
“He has way too many turnovers, which is not acceptable,” Kyle Shanahan said. “I know not all of them are [solely on] him. I think you can help around him better. I can do better to help out him not having so many picks, but he definitely needs to get that down. But Rex has done some real good things in these past couple of weeks.”
The other aspect that has improved — and which gives some players confidence headed into next season — is the running game, around which the Shanahan offense is predicated. After struggling to run the ball consistently during the first half of the season — the Redskins produced just two 100-yard rushing efforts in their first 10 games — rookie backs Roy Helu and Evan Royster have provided some explosiveness over the last month. Since Helu’s 108-yard performance in Week 12 at Seattle, the Redskins have gained at least 100 yards on the ground in every game, and have averaged 128.8 yards rushing, tied for 10th in the league during that time.
“When you have a running game, so many other things open up,” veteran wide receiver Santana Moss said. “You can’t pass the ball unless you have a good run game. It works hand in hand. It’s good to see those guys running wild, because that can just give you that assurance that you can look forward to in the future that we have two guys back there that [are] solid that can get the job done.”
With Williams returning from his suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy, and Lichtensteiger back from his torn knee ligaments, the offensive line should regain some continuity. Davis, too, will be back from his suspension. There is, players say, reason to believe the offense will produce.
“I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this offense is going to have a great year next year just . . . getting everybody back healthy and everybody fully understanding what’s going on,” Grossman said. “It’s just sometimes offenses take a while.”
It also, the Redskins know, sometimes takes some different players.
“I think we got guys on offense that we know are tough football players,” Kyle Shanahan said. “But I know we’ve got to keep adding some guys.”