The Washington Times - November 14, 2011, 11:15AM

Here’s what I’m thinking immediately after the Redskins’ 20-9 loss to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday:

There were a few small-scale positives to take away from yet another debacle, and I’ll get to those in a bit. I just want to mention it before we start as a way of encouraging you to come in off the ledge.

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It’s clear 3-13 or 4-12 is a real possibility for this team. Not only have the Redskins lost each of their last five games, they haven’t even led at any point during that span. They’re dealing with fundamental offensive dysfunction that, as coach Mike Shanahan said after the game, begins with their inability to run the ball.

The Redskins’ offensive line and tight ends, generally speaking, have failed to consistently generate a push and create lanes for running backs who, in turn, don’t always capitalize when holes are available. The line’s play has suffered from injuries to LG Kory Lichtensteiger, LT Trent Williams and RT Jammal Brown (not to mention TE Chris Cooley) during the losing streak, but let’s be real about this: The Redskins were not a great rushing team even during the four games when their offense was at full strength.

Washington had exceptional rushing games against St. Louis and Arizona, averaging 4.9 yards per carry in those two wins. But against NFC East rivals New York and Dallas, teams with strong, athletic front sevens, a healthy Redskins offense averaged only 2.8 and 3.0 yards per carry, respectively.

Now consider that Shanahan has signed three members of the Redskins’ first-string offensive line, Williams, Brown and RG Chris Chester, to long-term contracts. Those are Shanahan’s guys, and they weren’t getting the job done against divisional opponents. That’s scary.

So from where is the improvement up front going to come? Building a passing attack that opposing defenses respect would help. Maybe getting Chester through an offseason program alongside Brown would help.

As far as personnel goes, though, the problem isn’t just one person. All of the first-stringers lost their share of individual blocks or failed to get to linebackers or whatever. But I’m not sure the Redskins have the resources to overhaul the line AND draft a top quarterback AND acquire two top-flight receivers. Not in only one offseason, anyway.

Lichtensteiger’s contract is up after this season, and he’ll be coming off a severe knee injury, so maybe the Redskins go a different direction there. But he started to settle in and play fairly well at left guard this season. His athleticism is his biggest asset, so we’ll have to see if that survives his knee injury.

Re-signing Brown to a five-year deal in July surprised me a bit because he doesn’t move as well as, say, Williams. That’s what happens when you have hip surgery, though, and now he’s dealing with a strained groin. He’ll be 31 next March, and it seems his best years are behind him.

Even though Shanahan addressed the line with three high-profile signings, it’s still a weakness at this point. That reflects poorly on Shanahan’s evaluation of talent.

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Shanahan admits he lies to media to try to gain a competitive advantage or get a certain message across, so we reporters have come to believe him at our own risk. Sometimes you have to read between his lines, and that’s what I tried to do Sunday night with his unconvincing explanation about why he went back to QB Rex Grossman for the Miami game.

Before I go further, let me say that this is speculation, not reported news. It can be dangerous to openly speculate – facts are much better – but allow me it this time.

Here’s the best of a sorry bunch of quotes from Shanahan about why he benched QB John Beck:

“I think going into the game when [right tackle] Jammal [Brown] went down, putting John in a situation where we had a number of players go down, with his experience, I thought it was in our best interest to go with the guy I felt would give us the best chance to win the game, and that was Rex.”

OK, stay with me as I throw out a theory…

Shanahan promoted Beck after Beck played well in the fourth quarter against Philadelphia. The Redskins trailed that game, 20-6, when Beck replaced Grossman, and he was able to move the ball against an Eagles’ defense that was protecting a two-score lead.

In that game, LG Kory Lichtensteiger and TE Chris Cooley were lost for the season, and LT Trent Williams suffered a sprained ankle that kept him out two games. But Washington still had RB Tim Hightower and WR Santana Moss, and Beck played OK while Grossman was reeling. Shanahan was intrigued by the potential he sees in Beck, so he named him the starter for the Carolina game.

But then Moss and Hightower got hurt against Carolina. From a personnel standpoint, the offense was in shambles. But if Shanahan said he benched Beck for the Miami game because he was too inexperienced to win with a bunch of backups, why did he play against Buffalo and San Francisco?

My guess is that he might not have if Grossman weren’t still suffering effects from pneumonia. Grossman said Sunday that he didn’t feel normal until a week ago, which means he had no chance of playing against Buffalo or San Francisco even if Shanahan wanted to go back to him because of the injury situation on offense.

It’s worth asking Shanahan about this week, but there’s no reason to expect an honest answer.

***

There isn’t much to add about Rex that we didn’t already know (and there are still seven games left!). He can move the offense, and he did so against the Dolphins by being decisive, knowing where to go with the ball and driving his throws. But you’re always waiting for the big mistake, and sure enough that came through.

***

As for Beck, Shanahan’s explanation for benching him seems to indicate we shouldn’t see him until RT Jammal Brown and WR Santana Moss return.

If Beck were quarterbacking the NFC Pro Bowl team, would he be better? Of course he would. At some point, though, a quarterback’s true ability shows regardless of his supporting cast. Beck wasn’t convincing in his three starts.

However, I still say it’s fair to expect Beck to improve his reads and timing as he amasses playing experience. Maybe the improvement wouldn’t be significant. We might never find out.

***

OK, I promised some positives. Four come to mind.

LOLB Ryan Kerrigan is a force, and the best thing about him is that he continues to improve. He is much more explosive than he was when he first arrived. That’s the product of increased understanding of angles and leverage required in rushing from a two-point stance. He sacked QB Matt Moore in the first quarter after ripping under RT Marc Columbo on an edge rush. Such a display of explosiveness, speed and power was one we didn’t see in the preseason.

He also forced two fumbles. When he rushed unblocked and sacked Moore in the third quarter, he made sure to hack down on the ball and get it out. OLB Brian Orakpo could learn from that.

Kerrigan also has improved against tight ends, coaches say. Like Orakpo, he’s not a finished product in coverage. Still, in him the Redskins have found an important building block.

Kerrigan committed a personal foul (helmet-to-helmet) and a neutral zone infraction, but those mistakes get overlooked when a player is forcing turnovers.

***

WR Leonard Hankerson did well with his opportunity by catching eight of the nine passes intended for him. He obviously separated from defenders, and he didn’t drop anything, either. That’s progress.

On the downside, his failure to keep his balance on an out cut cost the Redskins an interception at the Miami 25-yard line.

I also want to tally his yards after the catch because he has shown a tendency to try to get down and minimize contact instead of fighting for more yards. WR Santana Moss will often get down instead of taking on tacklers, but he’s 5-10, 205, compared to Hankerson’s 6-2, 205.

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Measuring ILB Perry Riley’s progress is another reason to stay tuned to the final seven games of this hopeless march to the offseason. He’ll make mistakes because he has little game experience on defense, but he shows significant promise in how quickly he diagnoses where the ball is going and closes on it. That’s how you make four tackles for a loss, which he did Sunday. Twice he shot in behind the blockers on a screen pass and made the tackle. 

It’s easy to see why coaches would want to give him an opportunity to start. ILB Rocky McIntosh began the season playing well, but he recently has repeated some of his trademark mistakes of missing tackles and not being in the correct place on the field.

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Brandon Banks’ 22-yard punt return provided the spark the Redskins have been waiting for from him. On his longest punt return since Week 2, he made something out of very little open space near the left sideline. It gave the Redskins possession at their 41-yard line and set up the promising drive that ended with QB Rex Grossman’s interception at the Miami 5.

That’s it for me. Let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment, sending me an email at rcampbell@washingtontimes.com or by hitting me on Twitter @Rich_Campbell.