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The Washington Redskins' offense: Talent is improved over '09, but it'll be a work in progress

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 7, 2010; 3:44 PM

Fullback Mike Sellers can line up as an H-back and has been spotted at the Y. Joey Galloway appears to be the leading candidate for the X receiver, and Santana Moss is now a Z receiver, though he's also something called a G. And tight end Chris Cooley smiles when he notes that, "I've played the Z, I've played the F, I've played the Y, I've played the E. I'm looking to play quarterback soon."

The Redskins' offense covers most of the alphabet, and it has been a work in progress ever since its chief architects - Coach Mike Shanahan and his son, Kyle, the Redskins' offensive coordinator - first laid out the blueprint several months ago.

The end result is not only a system based on the run principles of Mike Shanahan's Denver Broncos' teams and passing tenets of Kyle Shanahan's Houston Texans' offenses, but a scheme that has required several older players to learn a few new tricks.

Quarterback Donovan McNabb ran a West Coast offense for 11 years with the Philadelphia Eagles, but as the Redskins prepare to open the season on Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys, he is still figuring out the nuances of the system he must operate now.

"It's a lot of what Houston was able to do and some sprinkles of what Denver was able to do," he said. "We might be able to run the ball a little better than Houston did - we just have to get our passing game to where Houston is."

The other positions have come with a similar learning curve. The most noticeable personnel changes can be found on the offensive line, the team's weakest link in recent years. Mike Shanahan and General Manager Bruce Allen brought in three new starters, drafting left tackle Trent Williams with the fourth overall pick, signing free agent Artis Hicks, a versatile lineman who will play right guard, and trading for Jammal Brown, a two-time Pro Bowler who takes over the right tackle spot.

"It's still a work in progress and I think it's going to continue to be [that way] until well into the season," said Hicks. "Things are going to jell together, we'll click and things will get going for us."

With such an overhaul, establishing chemistry and communication in the team's zone-blocking scheme has been important throughout the preseason.

"The whole thing, just getting a feel for playing together, playing next to each other," said Chris Foerster, Washington's offensive line coach. "Lot of new pieces, as we said going into camp. I think that's the thing that's started to progress more than anything. Whether it shows up yet in production in every area of our offense, there is a process and the chemistry is getting better. That's what I've seen primarily."

If the line is improved - and it would be difficult for it to perform much worse than the injury-riddled unit that gave up 46 sacks in 2009 - the team's running backs will be grateful. Last year, the Redskins had the league's 25th-ranked rushing attack and no tailback on the roster managed even 500 yards.

But Clinton Portis, whose 2009 campaign lasted only eight games because of a concussion, has drawn rave reviews for his offseason conditioning and his commitment to Mike Shanahan's program. Portis posted his best seasons under Shanahan, rushing for more than 3,000 yards in his first two years. Even though he's 29 years old, he believes he can match his Denver success now that he's been reunited with Shanahan and running backs coach Bobby Turner.

Shanahan will remain committed to the running game, hoping that it opens up the team's complex passing attack. While wide receiver appears to be a problem area for the Redskins, they'll lean heavily on their pass-catching tight ends.

McNabb's downfield accuracy is not highly touted, but he's had success in his career with tight ends such as Brent Celek and L.J. Smith. While Cooley enjoyed a strong relationship with former Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell, he feels McNabb might look his way even more often.

"I expect to get more balls thrown to me with Donovan and more opportunity in coverage when I don't expect passes than with Jason," Cooley said.

The team could also rely on a variety of two-tight-end sets, even sending both Cooley and Fred Davis, who is entering his third year in the league, on routes. That flexibility shows how highly offensive coaches think of their two tight ends, but it also highlights the limited options at receiver.

In Houston, Kyle Shanahan's offense helped Andre Johnson amass more than 1,500 yards and at least eight touchdowns each of the past two seasons. But he doesn't have an Andre Johnson on this roster.

For the Texans, Johnson was primarily an X receiver - a split end who lines up on the line of scrimmage - while Moss, the Redskins' top receiving threat, will mostly be a Z - a flanker who lines up behind the line of scrimmage - this year.

"I feel like we have different roles," Moss said of Johnson, a good friend of his. "There's no doubt I can operate in this offense, but the luxury that I have is, I'm a different receiver and I'm playing different parts. . . . It's something that I haven't had in a while and I'm looking forward to being out there and [having] this luxury again."

The Redskins acquired 38-year-old Joey Galloway as a free agent, and he'll line up opposite Moss unless a younger wide receiver, such as Devin Thomas or Anthony Armstrong, can impress coaches enough to take his spot.

As they open the season, the Redskins have replaced five of the 11 offensive players who started Week 1 a season ago. But even the players who return will have to adjust to new roles and responsibilities for the team's revamped offense to be successful.

maeser@washpost.com

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