Washington Redskins offseason: Upgrading the offense after likely departure of Donovan McNabb

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 5, 2011; 12:04 AM

Any team's offense starts and ends with the quarterback position and because of that, the Redskins' difficult 2010 season will likely be remembered for the team's failed relationship with Donovan McNabb.

A six-time Pro Bowler who was benched after 13 games, McNabb does not figure to be in the team's plans beyond 2010. But removing him from the equation doesn't cure all that ails Washington's inconsistent offense.

"I blame myself before I blame him," said wide receiver Santana Moss, who posted one of the best seasons of his career in 2010. "We all on this team together. Every individual guy should blame himself for what we went through this year. You can't just blame one person."

While Mike Shanahan revamped schemes on both sides of the ball in his first season running the organization, coaches noted some progress as the season wound down. Some in the organization believe that, on offense, much of it coincided with McNabb's benching. Shanahan says it's all part of a process - one that doesn't necessarily end now that the season is finished.

"It does take some time," Shanahan said. "One of the things you've got to understand about any offense, you've got to get the pieces to go."

Finding those pieces wasn't simply an offseason project. The offense saw a major makeover from 2009. The final game of the 2010 season, in fact, featured only three of the starters from the final game of 2009. Last Sunday against the New York Giants, the Redskins started only five of the players who lined up for their season opener against the Dallas Cowboys.

"It's like that when you get to a new place, you're a new staff and everyone is together for the first time," offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. ". . . Each game you learn a lot more about players. You got to try other guys out and see what they can do. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't."

As the Redskins look to upgrade their roster for 2011, they might not seek a massive overhaul of personnel as much as a strategic refinement. Despite the huge question at quarterback, Mike Shanahan feels his offense is pointed in the right direction.

"I'm excited about the future. I know we'll score points," he said. "I've been around it for too long. I'm just looking forward to putting those pieces together."

It starts under center

He'll first have to make a decision about his quarterback. Shanahan this week declined to tip his hand about whether McNabb or Rex Grossman, who started the team's final three games, will return in 2011.

Coaches tried tinkering with McNabb's mechanics and spent extra time with him studying the offense. But McNabb never showed them the progress they sought.

"Mike likes to do a lot of different things on offense, likes to change things up quite a bit," said Hall of Famer John Elway, who won two Super Bowls with Shanahan in Denver. "So it is a challenge week in and week out. You really got to stay on top of it and know that that's the way Mike likes to do things. . . I just know Mike is a very demanding and he's a very innovative offensive coach. As a quarterback, I loved it because it always gave us a chance to win football games and also keep the defense off balance."

McNabb's late-season replacement has repeatedly expressed a similar enthusiasm for the way the Shanahans operate. Grossman had eight turnovers in four games and averaged 280 yards in his three-game audition with a season-long passer rating of 81.2. McNabb's final passer rating was 77.1.

"Kyle Shanahan can definitely create a game plan to attack what defenses do and it's very exciting to run. . . I think this team has a great nucleus and great coaches," said Grossman, the only Washington quarterback who doesn't have a contract for 2011. "I think the Redskins are definitely going to be good the next couple of years. Those are the things that I want to be a part of."

Shanahan said he intends to fully evaluate McNabb and Grossman before making a final decision. Because the Redskins hold the No. 10 pick, they'll also carefully study this year's draft prospects - from Stanford's Andrew Luck to Auburn's Cam Newton - before prioritizing their offseason to-do list.

More work to be done

Meanwhile, there's work to be done elsewhere. While left tackle Trent Williams is the only offensive player who has a guaranteed contract for 2011 (McNabb's money is only guaranteed in case of injury), during the course of their six-win season, the Redskins discovered some players buried on the depth chart who might be able to contribute long-term.

At running back, Clinton Portis's time in Washington appears to be over unless he's willing to drastically restructure his contract.

Coming off two straight seasons that ended on injured reserve, Portis would be due $8.254 million next season. Ryan Torain, 24, is under contract for 2011 and would cost the Redskins only $480,000.

Money aside, Torain has shown the ability to be an effective running back if he can stay healthy. After battling injuries his first two seasons in the league, Torain missed four games in 2010 because of hamstring problems. But when he played, he showed promise, averaging 4.5 yards per carry, which ranked 10th among NFL running backs with at least 150 carries.

"I think he helped himself the last few weeks, taking so many shots and staying healthy," Shanahan said. ". . . Is he going to come in as the No. 1 back? No, I can't say that. Will he have a chance to compete to be the No. 1 back? Probably."

Still, the rushing attack left a lot to be desired. Coaches preached the team's commitment to the run but the offensive game plan didn't always reflect it. The Redskins finished the season ranked No. 30 in rushing yards per game at 91.3 - 22 yards fewer than their 2009 average. Their rushing first downs were second fewest in the league.

The team's passing game showed more sparks, if not more consistency.

Another young player who unseated a veteran, Anthony Armstrong is the lone wide receiver under contract for 2011 and is set to earn $405,000. Moss posted a career-high 93 catches and his fourth career 1,000-yard season. He'll likely be a free agent but says he'd like to continue playing in Shanahan's offense.

"Some guys go other places. Some guys feel like changing helps," Moss said. "I'm one of those guys, if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Progress along the line

The team's offensive line featured more change than than any other part of the roster, and Williams faced a lot of scrutiny his rookie season. Coaches gave him passing grades, but they're hoping for much more in the future.

He relied too much on raw talent in his first year in the league, they say. They want to see him spend more time studying his opponents, putting in work away from the field and doing the little things that will make him a better pro.

"The thing I think Trent's learned is you've got to play every down in the NFL," Kyle Shanahan said. "You can dominate a guy and if you just ease up one play, ease up two plays, then they got two sacks - and it might be a sack, fumble. I think Trent's really learned the key to the NFL is being consistent."

While the offensive line allowed 46 sacks in 2010 - the same number as last season - coaches did note significant progress. The Redskins tinkered with different lineup combinations, but they liked the group that ended the season which, they believe, adjusted better to their zone-blocking scheme.

"I think they've gotten better each week," Kyle Shanahan said. "You always have some setbacks. We do a little different protections than they have done in the past. We are more zone protections than man protections. I think it took guys a while to get the hang of it."

The bigger question is: Which of the lineman will return? Center Casey Rabach, 33, is due $3 million next season, a base salary that is on the high end for his position. The Redskins could try to move guard Kory Lichtensteiger, who is set to earn just $555,000 in 2011, to center or seek another option in free agency.

"There's always the thought in the back of your mind of: Did you do enough this season to hold your roster spot?" Rabach said. "You can't really worry about it too much. All I know is I played as hard I could each and every play I was out there. Hopefully that's good enough for the coaching staff."

At right tackle, the team also could be facing a question mark. Two-time Pro Bowler Jammal Brown will likely be a free agent, and if there's a starting left tackle job in the NFL, he might prefer that to a second season at right tackle in Washington.

Coaches like their depth at both tight end - where Chris Cooley posted some of the best numbers of his career - and at fullback, and many of the same faces could return in 2011.

Overall, the offense was ranked No. 18 in the league, averaging 335.9 yards per game, an improvement of more than 20 yards an outing from Jim Zorn's 2009 offense. The offense scored 36 more points than it did the previous year, but the Redskins ranked 31st in the NFL in third-down efficiency (29.3 percent).

Coaches and players say they've laid a foundation. Now, the Redskins will look to add a few parts and hope to simply pick up where they've left off.

"It's so much easier for everybody, not just the players, but also the coaches," Kyle Shanahan said of Year 2 in this offense. ". . . No matter how much we meet and talk, you don't really know it inside and out together and what each guy is expecting until you go through the experiences in games. Then you can build off of that."

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