By Tracee Hamilton
Saturday, September 11, 2010; 12:43 AM
Try to visualize what the Washington Redskins' offense will look like Sunday night when they open the season against the Dallas Cowboys. It's not easy. Last season means nothing. The general manager has changed. The head coach/occasional offensive coordinator has changed. The quarterback has changed. Nearly all the wide receivers are new. Only one running back remains. Three starters on the offensive line weren't here a year ago.
The offense we saw during a 2-2 preseason was described by players as "vanilla" (as most NFL offenses are in the preseason). The starting quarterback attempted just 34 passes before spraining an ankle. Only one quarterback had a rating of better than 100 - and he didn't make the team. The starting running back had just nine carries. Only one receiver had more than nine catches - and he didn't make the team. The offensive line allowed 11 sacks.
Of course, preseason statistics are mostly meaningless. Every team uses the CliffsNotes version of its playbook. Starters don't get a lot of playing time as teams run as many players as possible on and off the field to help decide cuts. (Albert Haynesworth is a notable exception.) Junk time, in the preseason, can begin as early as the second quarter. The fourth game is usually painfully uneventful (again, see "Exception, Haynesworth").
But preseason stats are all we've got to go on until Sunday night. There has been improvement in some areas. The Redskins were sixth overall in yards per game; they were 22nd last season. They were third in passing yards a game after being 16th a year ago. Five teams led the preseason with a plus-4 turnover ratio, and the Redskins were among them. Last season's ratio was a dreadful minus-11.
What didn't change? The Redskins were 27th in the league in rushing yards per game this preseason, just as they were during the 2009 season. That's not heartening news for Redskins fans who know Coach Mike Shanahan's proclivities. That also may not be heartening news for a team whose starting running back missed half of the 2009 season because of a concussion and already has suffered an ankle injury this summer.
Clinton Portis averaged just 15.5 carries in eight games last season; if healthy, he should get more carries this year, with Larry Johnson and Keiland Williams in the mix as well. But Portis is among those who caution not to expect a heavy dependence on the run. In fact, Portis says to expect the unexpected.
"It's a proven offense," Portis told reporters Thursday at Redskins Park. "It's 50-50; it's run or pass. . . . It's having plays that kind of act off each other. It looks like run all the way till you see the quarterback throw the ball 60 yards downfield. It will be often that the camera will follow the wrong person thinking they have the ball and hopefully the defense is doing the same thing."
(TV cameramen, you've been warned.)
Donovan McNabb expects a dependence on the run as well, but he points out that last season, the Houston Texans' offense under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan - now filling the same role with Washington - was far from dependent on the run. The Texans led the league in passing yards and were 30th in rushing yards.
"He's an aggressive guy," McNabb said. "Obviously he wants to run the ball and comes from good pedigree. His dad was very effective in running the ball. But he also likes to attack the safeties and attack downfield. I mean, look at where he came from. Coming from Houston, where the last two years Andre Johnson has been amazing, and Matt Schaub really came into his own and played well. When you come from that, obviously your offense speaks for itself."
There isn't an Andre Johnson (101 catches, 1,569 yards, nine touchdowns) among the Redskins' wide receiving corps, yet another question mark entering the season opener. McNabb speaks with confidence of his receivers, but as a team leader and co-captain, McNabb has to speak with confidence, because the fan base is just waiting for the Redskins to work a trade for some more speed and experience.
"I'm very excited about the guys that we have here," McNabb said. "Santana [Moss] has been a guy that I've seen over the years who has continued to kill us in Philly. Joey [Galloway] still has gas in the tank. I think we have some young guys who can really open up our eyes and be very effective in this offense."
At two positions, at least, fans should know what to expect. Fullback Mike Sellers returns, and McNabb has nothing but praise for his tight ends, Chris Cooley and Fred Davis. The rest of the offense is a mystery, and it will have to solve itself on national TV against a bitter rival who is being touted as a Super Bowl contender. McNabb, the master of the glass-half-full, has an answer for that as well.
"It helps that we had an opportunity to go in really against a 3-4 [defense] pretty much all throughout the preseason and different packages, different schemes, and different blitzes," he said. "But again, this is the regular season and this is pretty much when you bring all of your blitzes out. A lot of teams in the preseason don't really present you with a lot of blitz that they'll do during the regular season. It'll still prevent problems for us. We just have to make sure we have a great week of practice from being prepared to going out and playing great football."
But what's going to help more is getting all the starters on the field at the same time, implementing the entire playbook and hoping a receiver or two can surprise someone other than McNabb. Until all those things can happen, the Redskins' offense will remain the great unknown.