The Redskins almost certainly will acquire a new franchise quarterback in the offseason, so the value of all the current quarterback analysis in the scope of the offense’s long-term progression is limited.
A greater — and perhaps longer-lasting — problem is the Redskins’ inability to run the ball.
Shanahan hand-picked three of Washington’s five first-string offensive linemen and signed them to long-term contracts, so his vision for the foundation of his offense is taking shape. The results, though, have been miserable since the bye week. A combination of injuries, insufficient depth and poor execution have crippled the running game and, by extension, the entire offense and team.
In writing a story about that for Friday’s paper, I chatted with Mark Schlereth, the ESPN analyst who played guard for Shanahan’s two Super Bowl teams in Denver. We discussed the important elements of Shanahan’s zone running scheme. As a strong running game relates to the offense’s success as a whole, Schlereth recognized the direct correlation: “If you don’t have it,” he said, “it’s not going to work.”
Some of his comments read as a refresher of the introductory stories written when Shanahan first took over, but they provide a helpful baseline for analyzing the current state of the running attack.
My first question was about the importance of the line’s ability to generate a push when running stretch plays. Too often in recent weeks the defensive line has re-established the point of attack behind the line of scrimmage.
“Push is important,” he said. “I never want to get stymied on the line of scrimmage. I always want to get movement. But once I get movement, it doesn’t have to be a ton. Once I get movement and you react, that’s where we really get you.
“If you go hard to try to cross my face to maintain leverage in your gap, if I can get some movement and get some stretch on you, then I can use your own momentum against you and widen you much further than you want to go, which creates a cutback lane. If you stand hard on me and decide, ‘You know what? No, I’m not going to chase.’ Then I get you hooked and the running back doesn’t have to cut back. He just takes it right to the hole and gets his 4-plus yards. It starts with push. If you don’t get push, you’re never going to be great at running the ball that way.”
Lack of cohesion is another problem currently facing the Redskins. Injuries have resulted in four different starting offensive line combinations in the last five games, and the Redskins haven’t started the same running back in consecutive games since Week 4.
“Cohesion is so important in any running game, but especially in that game because you’re all counting on the same reads — and it’s for everybody,” Schlereth said. “When you work on it together, if every guy sees and feels and just anticipates the same thing, then you all work in unison like a bunch of dancing bears.
“I’ve played with running backs that don’t have great speed or great physical attributes but understand that scheme, the mesh points, and really have a feel for what’s going on. They can read the same thing the offensive line is reading, and they’ll make these natural cutbacks and it’s just like everybody’s wired together. Then guys come in and not understand it, guys with all the talent in the world hit it at 100 miles an hour and get nothing because they can’t read it. They don’t feel it. They don’t understand it.”
Schlereth said he isn’t convinced Tim Hightower, Ryan Torain or Roy Helu is the back that will propel Shanahan’s running game in Washington to the highest level.
“The year that T.D. (Terrell Davis) got hurt and Olandis Gary came in (1999) and had 1,200 yards rushing, if everything was blocked the exact same, T.D. would have had 1,700 yards,” he said. “And the year Mike Anderson had 1,400 yards rushing (2000), T.D. healthy, all things being equal, would’ve have 2,200 yards rushing. It’s not that he was more physically gifted, he understood what we were doing. He’s got it. It just made sense to him. That’s an issue with the running back position. You’ve got to trust it. You’ve got to understand it. A lot of it is the running back, trust me.”
And the thing about running the ball at a high level is that it takes pressure off of the quarterback. That will be especially important if the Redskins choose to play a rookie prospect next season.
“The beauty of this is when you’re running efficiently, you get Fake-18 or Fake-19 QB Keep Pass right or left, and you get out on the edge and you’ll get 10 completions that you or I could complete,” Schlereth said. “That’s how simplistic that becomes. So right now, to me, you’re almost causing automatically 10 completions. To me you’ve got 10 for 10 on a bunch of those throws. It’s almost automatic if you’re running it efficiently and you’re dominating.”
Throughout our conversation, Schlereth cited the Houston Texans’ offense, which ranked third in the NFL in yards per carry last season and is tied for 11th this year (4.43). Houston coach Gary Kubiak once served as Shanahan’s offensive coordinator in Denver, and he took the same scheme with him to the Texans. Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was Houston’s play-caller in 2008 and 09.
“You put on any Houston Texans film, they’re easy high-low [receivers] right in your vision,” Schlereth said. “I call them linear progressions. So as you roll out, you’ve got a fullback than goes on a slide in the flat, a tight end that’s crossing the field on a drag, and you’ve got a wide receiver running a comeback. They’re all 1-2-3 in a line. It’s a short-medium-deep progression, but they’re all linear. They’re all right in your eyesight. You’re like, OK, where do I want to cherry pick? Do I want to take the fullback in the flat? Do I have the tight end drag coming across? Or do I throw the 20-yard comeback? Which one is wide open? Which one is the easiest throw? Which one is going to get us the biggest chunk? Those are the things that they do consistently well in that offense in Houston and one of the things that we did so well in our championship years in Denver.”
There isn’t much the Redskins can do to improve their personnel issues right now, but if the same five linemen could ever put together a few consecutive starts, it’d be interesting to see if they progress. That might be the only way Washington manages another victory this season.