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Hog Heaven Previews the Redskins: Part II, Offense

Redskins logoGreg Trippiedi: I made it through the 2010 season and all I got was this lousy ‘Unleash the Dragon’ T-shirt

Rex Grossman will start at quarterback for the Redskins this Sunday. He will do that because he’s the best quarterback on the roster.

The Beck/Grossman quarterback situation ended up far too close to call based on four preseason games.  Now, I think it’s beyond clear that the Shanahan’s wanted/needed Beck to win the job.  But as a couple of big picture guys, I don’t know if it was ever in doubt that Grossman would start the season at quarterback.

The front office was never actively treating this season as a lost year, and Grossman’s abilities offer more to the Redskins chances to win games than Beck’s potential. So until it’s obvious to everyone that the Redskins aren’t playoff-bound, Grossman will try to drive the Redskins in that direction.  I think it would be foolish to suggest that John Beck isn’t going to be an important character this year because he didn’t beat out Rex Grossman in the preseason.  Beck is part of the bed the Redskins have made for themselves.  Grossman was simply the best
option in the room.

Any projection for an improved offensive output needs to believe in the continuity the Redskins have built for themselves on the offensive line.  They released Casey Rabach upon the lifting of the lockout, moved Will Montgomery to Center, and signed Baltimore RG Chris Chester to upgrade the hole.  If this seems like they were doing the bare minimum to have considered an “upgrade”, it’s because they were. The Redskins value offensive line continuity and kept four out of five guys.  When you look around the division, the Giants and Cowboys have some issues, and the Eagles have a full on catastrophe on their front five.  The Redskins might actually be the leaders in the division in terms of a synthesis between line talent, continuity, and a scheme that fits.  Problem is, I made a similar argument last season, and well, they weren’t very good (though they were much improved).

If this group of five has a competency, it’s that it will be able to run the football.  Can it pass protect?  Probably not without some help from Tim Hightower, Logan Paulsen, and Darrel Young.  But the Redskins can choose to go some max protect this year, and expect the quarterback to deliver the football.  So long as that quarterback is Rex Grossman.

Trent Williams is a guy who flashed elite pass protection ability at the beginning of last year, but was never really able to anchor the left side on a down to down basis.  What he unquestionably improved over the second half of the year (according to Lineman Yard Average) was his run blocking.  Trent Williams is now the best run blocking on this line and because Jammal Brown is also much better against the run than the pass, it makes sense for this team to run stretch a lot.  And so, like Jim Zorn’s offense before them, they will run stretch.  But unlike the prior regime, they will also run bootlegs off the action, and Grossman has proven to be quite good at selling the run action.  Being short enough to hide behind the line during run action cannot possibly hurt.

I’ve written plenty about the backs and receivers this offseason, where the Redskins have upgraded the most, so I’ll keep this brief: it remains to be seen whether the Redskins can make a seamless transition from old to young at WR at some point or not.  What we do know is that the principal players this season are Tim Hightower, Darrel Young, Fred Davis, Chris Cooley, Santana Moss, Jabar Gaffney, and Anthony Armstrong, with Terrence Austin seeing about 10 snaps per game. It will be a fairly common occurrence for Grossman to complete passes to six or seven different receivers in a game.  But for the most part, I would expect it to be the same 6 or 7 players every week. For the first time in a while, I don’t think the Redskins are going to lose any games because of failures by their backs and receivers.  For once, it will be the skill players carrying the quarterback, and not the other way around.

I was incredibly impressed with the work Kyle Shanahan did in the preseason managing his quarterbacks and using the run game to his benefit.  It’s hard to see the Redskins having a good year on offense without a suburb year from the game planner and play caller. The Gibbs-Saunders-Zorn Redskins were built to move the ball with minimal week-to-week input from the coaching staff — a wrinkle here or there — but the Shanahan’s do it differently. This is their offense. Is it a good offense? I think we have to hold them accountable if it isn’t. But there’s no question, if there ever was, that this is the Mike and Kyle show.

Anthony Brown: Curse you, Colin Cowherd

Sports radio personality Colin Cowherd and a bunch of other football smart guys picked the Redskins to win as few as two games this year. Why? Because of worldwide derision that either John Beck or Rex Grossman might start at quarterback. That forced me to commit an unnatural act–defend John Beck and Rex Grossman. The best defense was that they are no worse than Donovan McNabb v2010.

Meh. The glass half-full argument is neither fun nor insightful. It was depressing until I remembered my core football bias: 51 percent of the success or failure of every play rests with the offensive line. The 2010 stat line tells it. The Redskins had the league’s 30th-ranked offensive line. They were weakest on the right where a gimpy Jammal Brown started at tackle, sometimes backed by Stephon Heyer, no longer with the team.

Quarterback play will improve it the line improves on the 46 sacks and 110 QB hits allowed last year.

If you have read this far, I will not bore you by restating what Greg has already said about the players. The 2011 line can be overpowered, but this is not your grandfather’s O-line. Russ Grimm regaled us at his HoF induction ceremony with tales of moving the defender from Point A to Point B. The Gibbs II line was decent at that until their decline beginning in 2008. And really, only Chris Samuels could have cracked the starting line of the legendary Hogs of the ’80s.

This line, like their D-line counterpart, is build for movement. Their mission is to influence defenders out of the way and not to (always) to force them back. So watch how the line performs in the zone, especially on the right with Brown and free agent pickup G Chris Chester. Grossman and especially John Beck will tend to roll right. It helps the rushing game to have the flexibility to run right and left. The preseason was encouraging, especially for pass blocking. I see improvement, but cannot tell by how much in this most unusual preseason.

A problem with the passing game is Washington’s failure to find a replacement for Rod Gardner as No. 2 receiver. They’ve tried. Oh, how they tried to find a player who could make 60 receptions for seven touchdowns and 800 yards per season. This year, Jabar Gaffney gets a shot. The long-time Patriot, two-year, post-Shanahan Bronco, joined Washington in trade for DE Jeremy Jarman.

Gaffney delivered the best performance of his career in his second season in Denver with 65 receptions, 875 yards and two scores. Worrisome is his reception rate of 58 percent of the balls passed to him. TE Chris Cooley caught 60 percent and Santana Moss 63 percent of balls targeted to them. Gaffney is close, but I am in a show-me frame of mind.

Donte’ Stallworth has something going with John Beck. Redskins beat writers say they spent time working out together. I have a hunch that Stallworth on the roster means that we will see a lot of Beck.

If Clinton Portis were healthy, the Redskins would have had the 30th-ranked offense in 2010. Mike Shanahan exhausted his Rolodex to man the backfield. The one survivor is Ryan Torain, who followed Shanahan from Denver to Washington.

Tim Hightower showed his fitness for Shanahan’s offense from the time he joined the team in a trade for Vonnie Holliday. Shanahan telegraphed his preference for Roy Helu over Torain and fellow rookie Evan Royster, now on the practice squad, when he selected the Cornhusker in the fourth-round of the 2011 NFL Draft.

Helu and Hightower have breakaway speed. They could lead Washington’s return to the upper-half of offensive ranking. This turns the concept of “quarterback-driven game” on its head, but it works for the 2011 Redskins. Washington’s offense will do no better than the rushers do…just like last year.

Depth is still a fly in the ointment for the offense, especially on the O-line. Washington has Torain and Royster in the wings if something happens to Hightower and Helu. The team is carrying eight wide-outs on the roster. Grossman and Beck are a push at quarterback.

Eight-year veteran Sean Locklear is the only reliable veteran on the line. It’s football. Somebody is going to get hurt. But if any two starting linemen go down for the season, things could unravel very quickly.

Unless that happens, the Redskins will be competitive with any team they face.

NEXT: Hog Heaven’s Season Forecast