Jason Reid
Jason Reid
Columnist

Time for Mike Shanahan to see what Redskins’ young guys have

Before Sunday’s Redskins debacle, Coach Mike Shanahan began a process that should continue for the remainder of what is fast becoming another wasted season. If it’s not already past that point.

The man who has failed to provide solutions for Washington’s long list of problems finally did something significant Sunday, promoting three rookies to the starting lineup on offense. Shanahan’s decision to increase the roles of running back Roy Helu, wide receiver Leonard Hankerson and left guard Maurice Hurt did little to bolster the sinking Redskins, whose losing streak reached four games with a 19-11 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

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But despite Shanahan’s continued inability to provide a spark as Washington has dropped five of its past six games, he made a good move in going young on offense against the 49ers, because evaluating the team’s personnel for 2012 is the most important thing remaining this season.

Washington must determine whether its first- and second-year players — whom Shanahan and his assistants have often praised — are actually capable of helping the team’s inept offense. With so many areas to address on both offense and defense, it’s time for the Redskins to go all in on assessing the strength of their roster from top to bottom. Slowly going nowhere again, Washington should just acknowledge its bleak situation and truly look toward the future. And since Shanahan is the guy in charge, judging his performance in assembling the group also is a key part of the process.

Essentially, with eight games remaining, the Redskins would be giving up if they demoted many veterans in favor of younger backups, critics would argue. Washington would risk losing games while trying to develop players who, ultimately, could prove they’re simply not good enough to become front-line performers on a successful NFL team.

Generally, inexperienced players err more than those who are established. The Redskins have shown they aren’t talented enough to overcome the mistakes their veterans have made. Adding more youth to the mix in sweeping lineup changes could make it even tougher.

All true. And it doesn’t matter. “At this point, you want to see what you have,” special teams captain Lorenzo Alexander said. “With the injuries, you see that gap as far as talent and experience and trying to close that gap, so let’s see if these young guys can do it. They drafted ’em for a reason.”

The injuries on offense are part of the ongoing story. Washington, however, has struggled to score throughout Shanahan’s 9-15 tenure.

In his first start, Helu set a Redskins single-game receiving mark, breaking Hall of Famer Art Monk’s record. But perhaps never before had a Redskins record been achieved in a more meaningless fashion.

Washington’s offense mainly consisted of short passes to Helu out of the backfield. Although San Francisco primarily played a zone defense, Washington’s conservative game plan probably had more to do with quarterback John Beck’s deficiencies than the 49ers’ approach. Helu had 105 yards receiving and 41 yards rushing but also fumbled once.

“Helu’s got the speed to make some big plays,” Shanahan said. “I think you could see he’s a pretty good all-around back. . . . Obviously, he’d like to have that fumble back.”

Starting in place of Anthony Armstrong, Hankerson had four receptions for 34 yards. Hankerson “has been practicing pretty good through the last few weeks,” Shanahan said. “I think he’s a difference-maker in this league. He’s got a chance to be an elite receiver.”

The best thing about Hurt starting was that overmatched center Erik Cook returned to the bench. Will Montgomery moved back to center from left guard and Hurt replaced Montgomery.

“We can’t be frustrated. . . that a lot of young guys are playing,” outside linebacker Brian Orakpo said. “The young guys just gotta step up. We just gotta keep grooming them and helping them get better.”

The Redskins also have to provide more inexperienced players with starting opportunities.

Terrence Austin’s fumble with 7 minutes 23 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter triggered an exodus from FedEx Field, but the second-year wideout still should move ahead of Jabar Gaffney.

At this point, veteran inside linebacker Rocky McIntosh is better than his backup, second-year player Perry Riley. Still, let’s see if Riley is on track to start opposite the ageless London Fletcher next season.

Washington management, beginning with Shanahan, can no longer afford to fool itself about this roster’s shortcomings.

Encouraged by offseason moves in the draft and free agency, Washington coaches figured the team would have an elite defense. Shanahan, believing Beck was better than anyone available at the position in the draft, seemed confident the Redskins were on track toward a successful season.

During the preseason, Shanahan talked about the Redskins having the right mix of high-character guys. Washington, he said, improved its talent base. The Redskins had the pieces Shanahan wanted.

In response to a query about whether he thought the team would be better than last season’s 6-10 bunch, Shanahan said, “Anybody can see that.”

Standing at a lectern after the game Sunday, an apparently somewhat humbled Shanahan (as much as Shanahan is capable of being humbled, anyway) spoke of what the Redskins are attempting to do for the long haul. He focused on the process of building with young players who are now gaining experience. “It’s gonna pay dividends,” he said.

That’s what Shanahan is counting on. And he certainly needs to be right. His record as a talent evaluator in Washington has been shaky at best — and there are only so many more players on which he can stake his reputation.

More on Redskins vs. 49ers

John Beck won’t lose his starting job

Insider: Rookie trio of Helu, Hankerson and Hurt show progress

Insider: Graham Gano kicks 59-yard field goal

Thomas Boswell: Redskins’ offense pales to unit of 20 years ago

reidj@washpost.com

 
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