When Ryan Torain rumbled for five yards on the Redskins’ first play of their game against the Dolphins Nov. 13, he could have been any running back on any of Coach Mike Shanahan’s teams in almost any year. The message was the one Shanahan has delivered over so many seasons: We’re going to run the ball, run it again, and you won’t be able to stop us.
Right now, though, that running game is in disarray. From 1995-2008, Shanahan’s entire tenure as head coach in Denver, no team ran for more yards than the Broncos, and only one team ran the ball more frequently. From 2010-11, Shanahan’s 25-game stint in Washington, no team has rushed for fewer yards than the Redskins, and only one has fewer rushing attempts.
For all the hullabaloo surrounding Washington’s quarterback situation, the genesis of the Redskins’ horrific offensive output is their utter inability, and seeming reluctance, to run the ball. In Shanahan’s system — which also led the NFL in total offense during his time in Denver — that deficiency has a trickle-down effect that is nearly impossible to overcome.
“In that offense, you have to be able to run the ball,” said Mark Schlereth, who started at guard for Shanahan’s Broncos from 1995 to 2000. “If you can’t, if the running game’s not going, it limits everything else you can do. It won’t work.”
The Redskins, right now, don’t work. In the midst of the first five-game losing streak of Shanahan’s career, they are by many measures the worst running team in the NFL. Since Week 5 — in other words, since their last win — they have averaged fewer carries (15.8) for fewer yards (54.6) than any other team. In that span, no other team is averaging fewer than 19 carries or 79 yards.
That is the antithesis not only of Shanahan’s approach in Denver, but of what the Redskins did over the first four weeks of the season. The other difference from September: the Redskins were winning then, and now they’re not.
“The past couple weeks, you can tell it’s not the same,” said veteran running back Tim Hightower, who is out for the year with a knee injury. “I don’t know if you want to [say] cohesiveness, from top to bottom. It’s definitely — it’s a disappointment right now.”
Throughout the Redskins’ Ashburn training complex, that disappointment is among the most profound of what could be a disastrous season, because three months ago, the running game appeared to be filled with promise. Preseason results are notoriously fickle, but in four exhibition games, the Redskins rang up 145 yards per game on the ground.
“It’s kind of scary, man, just to see how everybody was on the same page,” Hightower said.
After an offseason in which the Redskins spent most of their attention shoring up a porous defense, they made two significant moves on offense: trading for Hightower to give them another option — along with Torain and rookie Roy Helu — in the backfield, and signing free agent Chris Chester to play right guard. The thinking was clear: Because the other linemen were familiar with Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme, a major overhaul wasn’t necessary.
“Everything starts up front,” Shanahan said. The coach felt comfortable with his offensive line. Shanahan and his son, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, believed Trent Williams, the gifted left tackle who was the fourth overall pick in the 2010 draft, simply needed to be more consistent in his second year as a pro. They believed left guard Kory Lichtensteiger had been the team’s best run blocker the previous year. They felt Will Montgomery would benefit in moving from right guard to center, where he would replace Casey Rabach, who was cut. And they insisted Jammal Brown, who had battled a hip injury for two years, was healthier, more flexible and, therefore, better.
“First and foremost, continuity is important in that system,” Schlereth said. “You got to have guys that know what they’re doing, that are reading the exact same thing, that are feeling the same thing, that are seeing the same thing. And that goes for all your offensive linemen, your tight ends, your running backs, your fullback, even your receivers.
“When those 11 guys are interwoven, that’s when that run game just goes bananas.”
From the time Shanahan took over the Broncos in 1995 through his second Super Bowl victory following the 1998 season, he had very little upheaval along the line. Tackle Gary Zimmerman, an eventual Hall of Famer, retired after the first Super Bowl win after the 1997 season, but he was replaced by Tony Jones, who had started some games at both tackle spots the previous year. Guard Brian Habib left that offseason as a free agent; he was replaced by Dan Neil, a second-year player who had spent his rookie campaign playing sparingly, but learning.
The Redskins’ projected starters hung together as a group for the first four games, and the Redskins ran the ball. Not as consistently as Shanahan would have liked — they averaged just 2.8 yards per carry against the New York Giants in Week 1 and just 3.0 yards per carry against Dallas in Week 3 — but the potential was there. Through four games, with their lineup intact, they averaged 30.8 rushing attempts a game (fourth in the league at the time) and gained 126.8 yards per game (tied for sixth).
“You could feel it starting to work,” Brown said. “It’s one of those run games where you get two yards, you get four yards, you get one yard — and bam, you get 20. And as the game goes on, it gets better.”
That is the design. But in the Redskins’ fifth game of the year, the design imploded. Lichtensteiger blew out his knee and was lost for the year. Williams suffered a high ankle sprain and missed two games. Tight end Chris Cooley – who Shanahan last week called “probably as good a blocking tight end as we’ve had in the league” — broke a bone in his hand, and is also out for the year.
Unlike in Denver, the replacements are players who have spent little, if any, time in the system. Among the spot starters over the past month are rookie Maurice Hurt, a seventh-round draft pick; veteran Sean Locklear, who signed with Washington a week into training camp; and second-year player Eric Cook, a seventh-round pick who spent 2010 on the practice squad. It appears likely that Tyler Polumbus, an undrafted player in 2008 who Shanahan kept on his final Broncos team but was cut Oct. 25 by Seattle, will start at left guard against Dallas. He is a tackle by trade.
Almost certainly, the Redskins will open Sunday’s game with their fifth different offensive line in six weeks.
“That’s been the hardest thing, when you change your group each week with the injuries we’ve had and we’ve got a bunch of guys going in there playing for the first time,” Kyle Shanahan said. “. . . The running game is all about continuity and playing together and all those guys being on the same page with the back. We definitely haven’t had that since Week 4.”
The Redskins haven’t consistently called for runs, either. Against Philadelphia, the game that began the rash of injuries, they ran just 14 times. Two weeks later against Buffalo, in what became the first shutout of Shanahan’s career, they ran 11 times — fewer than any game in franchise history. Only once did a Mike Shanahan-coached Denver team attempt fewer rushes; that came in the final game of the 2008 season, a 52-21 loss at San Diego that eliminated the Broncos from the playoffs. Shanahan was fired the following week.
That Denver team, which averaged 116.4 yards per game on the ground, was Shanahan’s least productive running offense — until he came to Washington.
Redskins players and coaches argue that the circumstances of their recent games have dictated more of a passing attack, even as quarterbacks Rex Grossman and John Beck have combined to throw 15 interceptions, tied for most in the league. The Redskins’ last held a lead in Week 4, a victory over St. Louis. Since then, they haven’t had even a 3-0 advantage.
“Watch the games when we have had a lead,” Kyle Shanahan said. “When we have had the lead, you’re much more balanced. We believe in balance.”
In the Shanahan offense, it isn’t just balance for balance’s sake, either. Many of the staple pass plays involve fake handoffs and designed rollouts for the quarterback, plays that don’t work without the threat of a running game.
“If you’re not running the ball with any efficiency, now you’ve taken away those 10 easy completions that you can count on going into a game,” Schlereth said.
As Mike Shanahan said: “Once you don’t have that balance, usually you’re going to turn the football over and mistakes will happen.”
The mistakes have happened, in droves. Shanahan, though, was defiant this week in assessing the running game. Give his team health, he said, and give it time, and the Redskins will run the football.
“We will get that running game back,” Shanahan said. “I promise you. We’ve been doing it over 20 years, and that’s our trademark.”