Jay Gruden blamed Sunday’s 21-9 loss to the Colts on his play-calling. “Really, it’s my fault. I couldn’t give any rhythm calling plays,” he said. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
Columnist

In two wildly dissimilar games, we have witnessed the promise and the concern of the Washington Redskins’ bold dive into the Alex Smith era. He is good and stable, and he can be a key factor in winning. He cannot carry an overly needy team. In dominant victory and depressing defeat, the team should have learned this lesson.

On offense, the story of this season won’t be about how Smith performs. It will be about who helps him perform. In Week 1, when the offensive line was powerful and the running backs churned and the opponent didn’t know what to expect, Smith facilitated an offense that the Arizona Cardinals could not handle. But then came the home opener Sunday and, in a 21-9 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, we saw what happens when Washington doesn’t control the line of scrimmage and employs a wishy-washy game plan, and the opponent has game film of the new-look offense to break down.

The results were ugly. They inspired boos from the FedEx Field crowd. They left Smith exposed as he was forced to attempt 46 passes with the team’s hopes on his arm. That’s not his game — never will be. And while Smith did throw for 292 yards, the offense didn’t score a touchdown against a team that gave up 34 points to Cincinnati the previous week. Smith managed only 6.3 yards per pass attempt, which is pedestrian and highlights Washington’s troubles creating big plays down the field so far this season.

Coach Jay Gruden wants to build this offense around versatility. He sees a team with the ability to mix and match and function as a football chameleon, transforming into whatever the situation demands. That’s a fine characteristic, but it can’t be the entire personality of this offense. The pieces aren’t dynamic enough for that. While the Redskins should aim to have balance and spread around the football, they still need to develop a calling card, a bread-and-butter aspect to their game, a strength that forces the defense to adjust. Until they identify that superpower and become consistent in using it to their advantage, they will be prone to listless performances.

There’s a fine line between a multifaceted offense and a confused one. Washington appeared to be the latter Sunday. Gruden admitted his team “didn’t have a very good run plan.” He wished he had started by attacking the Colts with short passes and taking more of what the soft, zone-based defense was giving it. He lamented having “no chemistry at all.”

“And it’s myself as a play caller,” Gruden said. “Really, it’s my fault. I couldn’t give any rhythm calling plays. The inside zone wasn’t working. The outside zone wasn’t working. Our read options weren’t working very well. We became one-dimensional. And our play-action passes? We got sacked on two play passes, for goodness sakes.”

I’ve always admired Gruden for being forthright about his mistakes. The typical pro coach’s ego (and insecurities) won’t allow for such self-examination. But Gruden has confessed his sins too often for comfort. This is his fifth season, and he needs to produce a playoff team. This miserable game amounts to a lost opportunity to clear a low bar. The introspection is admirable, but when do we get to hear him talk about sustained success?

Gruden can’t have many more no-shows. He hasn’t accomplished enough to have the equity to survive rampant inconsistency. Ascending teams shouldn’t look flat; they have too much to prove. Ascending teams shouldn’t have players questioning the group’s effort and desire to win.

“That’s the only thing — they wanted it more,” said Adrian Peterson, who rushed 11 times for 20 yards against Indianapolis. “And it was obvious they wanted it more.”

Both fans and athletes tend to oversimplify lackluster efforts. It’s easy to figure that Washington struggled to handle prosperity once again after an emphatic Week 1 triumph. But the problem goes deeper. Washington was emotionally invested. The players competed. But playing hard should be a given at this level. The tricky part is playing hard with a fervent belief in what you’re doing. This team, with Smith in command, doesn’t have the history to be there just yet. It doesn’t really know what it is or what it should be right now. So when trouble arrived, it got flustered.

Now comes the question: How will the team adjust?

For the offense, the acknowledgment of limitations could spur a more streamlined approach. After watching his team rush for 182 yards in Week 1, Gruden may have been too bullish on the run game. Gruden knows Smith plays his best football when he is allowed to play off a strong rushing attack, but this early in the season, it’s dangerous to assume that Washington’s long-suffering run game can be so consistent.

Gruden needs to try to establish the run, but as he mentioned, being aggressive with short, quick passes serves as an extension of the run and can get the offense in a rhythm, too. While he is healthy, tight end Jordan Reed should be more of a focal point. Get him the ball. Scare the defense into reacting. Then perhaps it will open up opportunities running the ball and throwing to receivers on the outside. With Gruden, there’s always a battle between creativity and simplicity. Heavy early doses of Reed, Chris Thompson and Jamison Crowder in the passing game could help Smith get confident and in a good rhythm.

On Sunday, Gruden seemed intent on forcing a power run game and throwing over the top. The Colts responded by frustrating Washington at the point of attack, and they disguised coverages well to make life hard on the receivers. It didn’t help that Paul Richardson Jr. and Josh Doctson dropped passes at critical moments. In the first half, the wide receivers combined for only three catches and 35 yards on eight targets. Washington couldn’t run, either. Crowder produced 29 yards on two carries, but the running backs — Peterson, Thompson and Rob Kelley — accounted for two yards on seven carries. Add some bad penalties, and the offense couldn’t stay on schedule.

“As a coach, Jay is owning it,” Richardson said. “Collectively, man, we’ve got to make more plays. He wants to take responsibility, and I understand that. But we have to stay on schedule and avoid all these negative plays and execute.”

Back in Week 1 — you know, when Washington wasn’t a sorry excuse for a football team playing at a lifeless FedEx Field — it thrived as a delightful mystery. Darkness worked, even if Washington also couldn’t see. Now there is an actual record of this coalescing offense, and Washington must overcome its shortcomings.

Now you see the 33-year-old in Peterson. The O-line isn’t as great as Gruden hypes it to be. Smith is struggling to connect with his wide receivers and, because of injuries affecting the depth of that position group, it might be wise to explore options even beyond Monday’s reported additions of Breshad Perriman and Michael Floyd. All thoughts must be welcome.

Mostly, though, the offense needs an identity. It can’t be trying to run over the defense and then figuring out the rest. The offense has talent, but it won’t overwhelm most teams with it. And there is no clear strength.

“The great thing is we have a lot of weapons,” Smith said. “We have a lot of tools, and we can find something, no matter what.”

It took until the third quarter for Washington to find something Sunday, and it didn’t help the unit reach the end zone. The offense needs constants, and 46 passes from Smith can’t be one of them.

The unknown worked for one week. After this clunker, however, the offense had better hustle to forge an identity.