Kirk Cousins’ unsettled contract situation hovers over the Redskins. (Mark Tenally/AP)
Columnist

Before a victory in Seattle two weeks ago, Washington Redskins Coach Jay Gruden visited the defensive meeting room to issue a challenge. Actually, the word "challenge" might be too strong. It was more a plea for help.

He gave the defense a task he wouldn't have dared to assign for most of his four seasons in charge: Carry the team. It was a significant moment of trust and humility for the offensive-minded coach.

"We're going to have to lean on you guys," Gruden told the defensive players. "We need it. This is how it's going to be for a while."

Considering the situation, it was an obvious request that, for one game, jolted an unpredictable team. At the time, Gruden had an offense missing four starting linemen and tight end Jordan Reed and playing with several others discombobulated by injury or poor performance. But the plea symbolized much more, and that wasn't lost on some veteran players.

"When he came in and said that, I was like, 'The defense, we have to step up to the challenge,' " lineman Ziggy Hood said. "We already knew it, but now you could feel it. The shift was already happening. We aren't that team with a star-studded offense and bad defense anymore. We have to be balanced, and it's not just the defense doing its part. We can't chip in. We have to lead the way. That's just how it is. Things change quickly in this league."

The change has been too sudden for comfort. It's great that the defense, while far from special, has improved and become the most important factor in Washington's four victories this season. But the offense, while still decent, barely resembles its 2016 form. For a team built around the offensive ingenuity of its head coach, this isn't a good place to be in Year 4.

Gruden spent three years building an offense that gained the third-most yards in the NFL last season, only to watch it become diminished by free agent departures, ill-fated draft and free agent acquisitions and bad luck with injuries. And if that's not bad enough, a never-ending quarterback contract saga looms over the future.

Just 11 months ago, Gruden was screaming inside a Glendale, Ariz., locker room after a 31-23 loss to Arizona. He was most upset that his defense looked unprepared at the game's start and disorganized at the end. It was a climactic moment of frustration that led to the firing of defensive coordinator Joe Barry in January. Gruden finally realized that, even though he had created an enviable offense (despite its red-zone woes), the team was being held back by one of the league's worst defenses.

A season later, he stood before his defense and acknowledged how much had changed. When he told the players that he needed to lean on them, the assumption was that he meant a few weeks. But what if Washington can't resolve its offensive issues with a month of healing or even an offseason of dealing? You don't have to be a pessimist to think the franchise will have to overhaul an offense that it just finished overhauling.

In scoring 30 points and gaining 394 yards against the Minnesota Vikings' well-regarded defense last Sunday, the offense showed signs of a second-half surge. But even if Gruden figures out something for the rest of this season, the future remains murky. The franchise hoped for a plug-and-play scenario with the offense. Replace 1,000-yard receivers Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson with Terrelle Pryor Sr. and a healthy Josh Doctson and keep humming. Instead, the first nine games of the 2017 season have created more problems.

It's likely that Washington will exit this season knowing it needs to find a true No. 1 receiver and a bell-cow running back. And the team's best tight end, Reed, will be coming off the most frustrating of his five injury-plagued seasons. And the attempt to sign quarterback Kirk Cousins to a long-term contract will be more complicated than ever.

Other than that, this is a turnkey offense.

The offensive line should be fine, at least. Washington also has all the complementary weapons an offense could ask for: third-down back Chris Thompson, backup tight end Vernon Davis, slot receiver Jamison Crowder. But the unit's problems happen to be the most expensive ones to solve.

The past week offered another painful reminder of the predicament. On Tuesday, running back Rob Kelley was placed on injured reserve and lost for the season because of an ankle injury. Kelley emerged at midseason in 2016 and established himself as the starting running back. But this season, injuries limited him nearly every week, and he was averaging just 3.1 yards per carry. After discarding productive running back Alfred Morris before the 2016 season and watching 2015 third-round pick Matt Jones turn out to be a bust, Washington tried to build a running game around low-cost, serviceable backs and draft sleepers, but the strategy hasn't worked.

When this season ends, it's almost certain the team will have to invest in a running back by using a high draft pick, spending significant money in free agency or giving up assets in a trade. If not for the uncertainty with Cousins, this would be the offense's priority.

The difficult thing, with the running backs and the entire offense, is that injuries robbed Washington of the opportunity to try to make this work. At various times this season, there have been reasons to be encouraged. But building consistent habits and creating momentum have been impossible. Gruden has resumed play-calling duties now that Sean McVay is in Los Angeles, and he has done a good job giving the offense a chance despite the injuries. Thompson and Davis have performed above expectations and helped Cousins make the passing game functional. Doctson has made enough big plays to keep you intrigued. But Reed hasn't been available to be the offense's star anchor. The Pryor signing has turned into a nightmare, and now he's dealing with a significant ankle issue. In most games, Washington is clever enough to make a defense work. However, opponents don't fear this offense.

The vision for the 2017 offense was interesting. When Garcon and Jackson received big deals and moved on, Washington didn't look for comparable star replacements. Gruden opted for depth. He was willing to sacrifice A-level talent with more athletes with above-average ability. In the running and passing games, the goal was similar: Let the offensive line's versatility shine by throwing every concept in the playbook at defenses, create threats all over the field, and allow Cousins to thrive by spreading the ball around.

It could have worked. But it's always easier to rely on a few stars, as long as they're durable. When a team has mostly role players who can't stay healthy, that's when practice squad call-ups and unemployed athletes start getting opportunities.

The bad luck should be temporary, but Washington won't be tempted to fail with the same personnel next season. Player development will be essential, and Doctson and rookie running back Samaje Perine top the list of offensive youngsters who can do more in the future. But this team — which already has the NFL's fifth-most expensive offense — will have to make some smart big-money investments, too. Or it will have to let Cousins go elsewhere and blow the whole unit up. That's the only good thing about the 2017 offensive regression. Unintentionally, it creates an ideal time to do something else.

Well, it's not ideal for Gruden, who seemingly just finished a complete renovation of the offense. Hope he remembered to take pictures.

For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.