Five weeks into the season, Redskins are still searching for an identity on both sides of ball

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 17, 2010; 12:15 AM

When Joe Gibbs coached the Washington Redskins from 1981 to '92, only one team, Chicago, ran the ball more. When Gibbs returned for a four-year stint from 2004 to '08, only two teams attempted more rushes. The Redskins, whether they had old-school John Riggins or modern-day Clinton Portis, had an offensive identity: They ran the ball.

What, then, to make of these Redskins, the 2010 version? They have thrown the ball as few as 19 times in one game, as many as 49 the very next week. Five games into his first season as the coach of Gibbs's old team, Mike Shanahan - replete with a reputation as a run-first coach - is still waiting for the identity of his Redskins to take shape.

"I think if you take a look at the offenses I've run, I think you know the identity," Shanahan said immediately after last week's overtime victory over Green Bay, the game that begat 49 pass attempts. "What is our identity right now? Well, it's not very good, because we're not as consistent as I'd like to be."

When the Redskins take the field Sunday night against Indianapolis, they will be facing a team with a clear sense of self. Since he entered the NFL in 1998, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning has thrown more passes than anyone else, and Indianapolis's fortunes - though the team has boasted stars at defensive end in Dwight Freeney and safety in Bob Sanders - are carried capably by Manning's right arm. Entering Sunday night's game, Manning again leads the NFL in pass attempts, throwing at least 43 times in four of the Colts' five games.

The Redskins, though, have a new coach, a new quarterback, a completely new offensive system - and as of yet, no real defined style. They are 31st in the league in third-down efficiency, but they rank in the top 10 in yards per play. Their passing offense ranks seventh in the NFL, but their red zone offense is abysmal. Once they get inside the 20-yard line, only one team is less efficient in scoring touchdowns.

"We're working to get that identity, if it's a running team, if it's a throwing team," quarterback Donovan McNabb said, "whatever it may be."

An offense that will work

Despite the statistical disparities, the Redskins are 3-2 and - by virtue of their 2-0 intra-divisional record - lead the NFC East. But the way they arrived at that point shows Shanahan is still trying to apply his system to the team he inherited and began reshaping. More than anything, the first five weeks of the season revealed that this is a process that, as McNabb said, "will take a while."

"You always have to adjust to your personnel," Shanahan said. "You have the offense that you'd like to run, and you take a look at the offense and what you can run, and what you think will work. If you're going to take an offense and say, 'Hey, this is my offense,' and all of a sudden you don't have the pieces, then you don't have the ability to do that. So you try to evaluate your personnel, see what they do best, and run the type of offense that gives you a chance to be successful."

Because Shanahan is, at base, an offensive coach with a well-defined philosophy - his Broncos ran more frequently than any other team in the league during his 14-year stint as the head coach in Denver - there was an easy assumption that he would arrive in Washington and run, run, run. Shanahan's reputation precedes him to such an extent that, as the team prepared to kick off against Green Bay last week, former Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman, now an analyst for Fox, outlined his expectations for the Redskins' offense.

"So many times, nowadays, you see a lot of teams going to the spread offenses, quarterbacks in shotgun formations," Aikman said on the broadcast. "Not so much here in Washington. This is a two-back offensive set."

And then the Redskins proceeded to use a three-wideout, no-fullback set for their first two series. That, then, began the disparity against the Packers, when the Redskins ran 21 times and threw 49. The split, in the previous week in Philadelphia: 35 rushes, 19 passes.

"We're not going to be one-dimensional and say, 'Hey, we're a running team; we're going to try to stick to the run no matter what,' " center Casey Rabach said. "I'm not saying we'll be a passing team and we'll stick to the pass no matter what, either. What works that day is what we're going to do."

That's why they could enter the game against Philadelphia with a plan to run the ball, something they did on nine of their first 12 plays, two drives that led to two touchdowns. That's why, too, they can almost completely alter that plan against Green Bay, when they called first-down passes to open four of their six first-half possessions. Sometimes, as guard Artis Hicks said, "It can change quarter to quarter."

Is this confusion? Or progression?

"We, as an offense, are not comfortable with everything yet," wide receiver Santana Moss said. "People expect us to be like, 'Okay, you have Donovan, you have this going on, you have this new offense. Why [are] you not seeing more from the offense?' Because we [are] still learning."

Adjusting the 'D', as well

That is certainly true of the defense as well. While the offense is adjusting to a zone-blocking scheme and Shanahan's emphasis on play-action passes - perhaps the most consistent aspect of the attack - the defense has struggled at times in the 3-4 scheme of new coordinator Jim Haslett. And they are similarly schizophrenic as the offense. They allowed more yards per game (410.2) than any team in the league, but still rank in the top 10 in points allowed. Through five weeks of the season, only two teams - the Redskins and Colts - have had two games in which they allowed as many as 30 points and three others in which they allowed 14 or fewer. They are, in effect, all over the map.

Under former coordinator Greg Blache, the Redskins ran a straightforward 4-3 alignment in which blitzes were used only occasionally. Haslett has not only altered the mentality and the scheme - occasionally playing only one down lineman in passing situations - but also the willingness to mix things up.

"I think 'Haz' naturally is an aggressive guy, a get-after-it blitzer," said linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, a converted defensive lineman. "But he's also smart. He's not going to blitz all the time if it's not necessary."

So as varied as the Redskins' offensive game plans have been, their defensive approaches have been perhaps more difficult to predict - though, in terms of yardage allowed, apparently fairly easy to solve. Washington has been outgained in each of its five games, but not in the same manner each time.

After the Redskins consistently pressured Houston quarterback Matt Schaub on Sept. 19 - frequently sending strong safety LaRon Landry to the line of scrimmage, collecting five sacks as a team - they followed with a game plan against St. Louis and rookie quarterback Sam Bradford that was almost completely the opposite.

As cornerback DeAngelo Hall said in the locker room following that surprising loss, "We came here against this group, we didn't say we were going to go out and do too much. We just felt like we would go out and beat them. We felt like we were better."

The following week, against the Philadelphia Eagles - a team the Redskins couldn't simply feel better than - Haslett also all but eliminated the blitz to better contain mobile quarterback Michael Vick. He also confounded the Eagles' dangerous receivers with different coverages. The Redskins allowed a season-low 353 yards - and then returned the following week against Green Bay, blitzing again. "In past years here, it was man [-to-man coverage] no matter what," cornerback Carlos Rogers said. ". . . Being able to have a lot of flexibility and change up a lot of things, not letting them know that, 'Okay, they're playing Cover-2,' [is an advantage]. Nah, that ain't going to work this year."

What works for the Redskins in 2010 apparently could change from week to week, on both sides of the ball.

"We all just have to build that comfort level where it don't matter what plays there are, we can kind of go off schedule a little bit, and make some plays down the road," McNabb said. "It can happen this year, and I expect it to."

The reality, though, is Shanahan's vision of the Redskins' identity is evolving. They may be in the running for a playoff berth. They may contend for the NFC East title. But only when Shanahan has the precise players he wants with the skill sets he deems appropriate will the Redskins' long-term identity be unveiled.

"Ultimately," Shanahan said, "you're trying to put that unit together where, in the long run, you can do exactly what you want."

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