Redskins' offensive woes have been years in the making

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, November 15, 2010; 12:19 AM

When the Redskins face the Eagles, keep one harsh fact in mind to put the fuss about Donovan McNabb and Mike Shanahan in a larger context. Since the start of the 2000-01 season, the Redskins are the second-lowest scoring team in the entire NFL. That's the real problem.

In a period that's now approaching 11 seasons, only the lowly Browns have fewer points than Washington. That's why the Redskins, whose defense has been a hair better than the average team in this century, play so many close, low-scoring games. That's why every crucial turnover or missed kick haunts them.

They have little margin for errors because their offense, for more than a decade, has not been bad; it's been awful. In fact, for the last two years under Jim Zorn, it was even worse than usual.

One reason Coach Mike Shanahan, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and quarterback McNabb have been so frustrated this season, and perhaps annoyed with each other, is because they have always been part of superior offenses. They don't realize they inherited a wreck of an attack at one of its lowest points with a lousy offensive line and, as usual, a lame group of wide receivers.

His last 10 years in Philadelphia, McNabb's teams averaged 376 points a year, sixth best in the league. And in his last 10 years in Denver, Shanahan's Broncos averaged almost as much - 370. They're new to the Redskins' offensive impotence - an average of only 291 points a year since '00 and just 265 and 266 in '08 and '09.

To McNabb and Shanahan, it's like somebody stole 100 points a year from them. Guys, stop scowling at each other. It's not you.

The Redskins couldn't score in Norv Turner's last year or for Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier, Joe Gibbs or Jim Zorn. All came to town with "offense" on their business cards. Only in Gibbs's last three years, with Al Saunders running the offense, did the Redskins even get close to the NFL average in points. Ten years of fantasy-football personnel decisions - coupled with each new coach blowing up the previous roster - can't be erased in eight games.

Ironically, the Redskins' scoring is up 17 percent this year. If this were a business turn-around story, Wall Street would be buying it. Why are they 4-4 after going 4-12 last season? Just a few more points win games.

The idea that a key flaw in the Redskins' offense is McNabb's grasp of terminology, his throwing motion or his conditioning is ludicrous. The team's offensive mess totally pre-dates him. It'll be a cold day in Redskins Park when the 10 men in the huddle with McNabb are so good that he's the one who's holding them back.

Neither Shanahan's system nor his son's ability to teach it is a long-term issue either. These guys were given a shack. After eight weeks, isn't it a little early to ask, "Where is our mansion?"

The top issue on the Redskins' agenda, whether McNabb lights up his old Eagle mates on Monday night, or gets crushed, is to heal any hurt feelings from the past 15 days, lay the groundwork for a contract extension for the quarterback and stop acting crazy.

The Redskins' offense has so many weaknesses, with more voids as Santana Moss and others age, that their need to keep McNabb in town for a few more years borders on utter desperation. Maybe the relationship is torn. Work on the assumption it must be mended.

Those who watch the Redskins are so inured to their flaws that we hardly even recognize them any more. Everybody screams about an offensive line on which everybody got old at once; mass replacements were needed but only Trent Williams has arrived yet. But the Redskins' wide receivers remain the same old toxic dump. Many teams have three good ones, some use four at a time, but the Redskins seldom have two who are even adequate.

What team has wasted so many high draft picks on disastrous wideouts? The cumulative impact of six straight busts is huge. After Desmond Howard (No. 4 overall), Michael Westbrook (No. 4) and Rod Gardner (No. 15 in '01) came three second-round flops: Taylor Jacobs, Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly.

As a result, in the '00s decade, the Redskins got 74 touchdown catches from their starting wide receivers. The Eagles, Giants and Cowboys got 103, 118 and 121. Dallas's wide receivers had 86 touchdowns in the last five years alone. The gap between the Redskins and those division rivals is even greater than that. Why? The Redskins' "third receivers" have also been weak by comparison.

In the decade, the average Redskins starting wide receiver had 57 catches for 761 yards. The NFL's top receivers sometimes have as many catches and yards as both Redskins starters.

Look at the Giants' trio of young wideouts and consider the deficit the Redskins must fill. Since the start of '09, Hakeem Nicks, Steve Smith and Mario Manningham have 33 touchdown catches.

All the Redskins' wide receivers combined have nine.

The Redskins have already started to fix the problem by getting McNabb. Veterans know how to make do. He's revived Moss, on pace for 1,208 yards after four years averaging 876, and made a threat of Anthony Armstrong. The pair are on pace for 130 catches for 1,944 yards. That'd be the most grabs by two Redskins wide receivers since the Super Bowl win in the '91 season and the second-most yardage since '94.

Besides their offensive woes, the Redskins also have another chronic problem that undermines them. They are always in a hurry to improve radically; or, at the least, they refuse to admit that they are a less-than-contending team. So, a scapegoat has to be found.

In the NFL, the order for scapegoating is: 1) quarterback, 2) offensive coordinator and 3) head coach. When 2) and 3) have the same last name, there's a strong chance that 1) will get blamed.

It's a pity Shanahan panicked in the last two minutes of the Lions game and yanked McNabb. That's all it was: standard Redskin World pressure building up until somebody in authority chooses the single dumbest option that's available to them. His post-mortem quotes, and revised quotes were all taken from the George Allen tome, "The Future Is Now. The Truth Can Wait."

After you see Gibbs call two straight timeouts for a penalty that sets up a game-losing field goal, you're not surprised when Zorn calls consecutive fake field goals or Shanahan decides that salvation lies in the phrase, "Get me Rex Grossman." Face it, there's lunacy in the water at Redskins Park. Has been for a while.

Winning heals many wounds. So, a second victory this season against the Eagles, which would deal another blow to the Donovan knockers in Philly, might be medicinal for the Redskins-McNabb relationship. But defeat has its uses, too. And the Redskins haven't been beaten for the last time this year, that's for sure.

When they do lose, that's when Shanahan and the front office need to show McNabb that they understand that the Redskins' offensive agonies have festered for a decade. And that he is the key to the solution, not the latest scapegoat for ancient problems.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company