By Barry Svrluga
Friday, August 13, 2010; D1
Throughout his first training camp in charge of the Washington Redskins, Mike Shanahan has stood behind his offensive unit as it runs plays against his own defense, sporting a white T-shirt over black athletic shorts, a single sheet of paper in his hands. In each of his last dozen seasons as a head coach, at least some of the players Shanahan watched would have had complete grasps of how the plays on that sheet should translate to the field - even in August, even with the season a month away.
This week, though, as the Redskins prepared for Friday night's opening preseason game against the Buffalo Bills, Shanahan could offer only the following assessment of his offense: "We're making some strides, typical of the first year." The coach and his system are new to the players, and vice versa. Collectively, they're starting over.
Though the first offensive unit - led, for the first time, by quarterback Donovan McNabb - is expected to play just 15-18 plays against the Bills, conclusions will begin to be formed about Shanahan's offense and its fit for Washington's personnel. In the previous two seasons, just five teams scored fewer points than the Redskins, who averaged 16.6 per game under former coach Jim Zorn. The Redskins' 56 touchdowns during that period tied the franchise's lowest output in any consecutive seasons since the NFL schedule expanded to 16 games in 1978.
Thus, the offensive system employed by Shanahan, which was outscored by only Indianapolis and Green Bay during his 14-year tenure as the head coach of the Denver Broncos, will be analyzed from the initial snap.
"Leaps and bounds," is how fullback Mike Sellers characterized the potential change. "The sky's the limit."
There should be, though, a bit of caution before Shanahan's run-first version of the West Coast offense is completely unveiled. Though coaches across the league are familiar with the scheme Shanahan ran in Denver, the new Washington staff is wary of unveiling the specifics of how it will employ McNabb, a running back stable that includes Clinton Portis and Larry Johnson, and a pair of potentially dangerous tight ends in Chris Cooley and Fred Davis. On one hand, there is no need, on an August night against Buffalo, to tip those cards too much. On the other hand, the players must show they are learning the scheme.
"It's hard," Shanahan said. "You don't want to show too much, but at the same time you want to evaluate players. . . .The first game's a little bit tougher."
As with everything Shanahan does - from filming each snap of each practice, then picking apart each player's performance on each of those snaps - there will be intense scrutiny on every player, from surefire starters such as McNabb and rookie left tackle Trent Williams to those battling to show their worth, such as third-year wideout Devin Thomas. Though McNabb has looked somewhat shaky during training camp - throwing several interceptions in 11-on-11 drills during the first week of workouts before sharpening up over the final few practices - the real evaluation for Shanahan and his son, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, comes in the four preseason games.
One of the chief objectives against the Bills will be to make sure Shanahan sees enough of as many players as possible to get a true evaluation of what they can do - not only on offense, but on defense and special teams. Thus, the two days prior to the game were spent coming up with a specific game plan - not for how to attack Buffalo, but for how much time to give each of the 80 players in camp.
"It's difficult," Kyle Shanahan said. "You've got to put some time into it and talk through it, and make sure all the coaches are on the same page. You got to let your players know so that they're ready when they're going in, and you can know when someone gets hurt, someone's ready to step up. . . . It is chaotic. It's one of the hardest things about preseason."
Kyle Shanahan said some players battling for roster spots who play sparingly or not at all Friday will get extended time in the next preseason game, Aug. 21 against Baltimore. That complex equation, though, doesn't affect the first offensive unit, on which few jobs are in question.
Veterans Joey Galloway and Roydell Williams will battle Thomas for the receiver spot opposite Santana Moss. Portis, the starter at running back the past six seasons, will be pushed by Johnson, veteran Willie Parker and second-year man Ryan Torain. Though Jammal Brown, the projected starter at right tackle, will sit out Friday because of a hip injury, the group is fairly intact - and therefore, the performance in those first 15-18 plays could be an indication of what's to come.
"I think we're at a point where, obviously, we could be very effective if we played at this point," McNabb said. "But that's not to say that's our goal or that's where we need to be."
Nor is it to say they know how they'll perform in games based on how they've performed in training camp.
"You got to see us on the field," center Casey Rabach said. "Even though you're practicing hard out here, you're taking care of your teammates. We're not cutting people on the back side. We're not using our full arsenal of blocking techniques out here. You get an idea, but you don't know where we're at until you play a game."
And even then, in this game, it'll be only a glimpse of where they're at. The full extent of Shanahan's offense likely won't be on display for another month, in the Sept. 12 season opener against Dallas. Then, the sheet Shanahan holds during the week will be tailored to the Cowboys. Then, his team will be set, and will be more familiar with the system. And only then will there be nothing to hold back.