Initial Thoughts: 49ers 19, Redskins 11

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Here’s what I’m thinking immediately after the Redskins’ 19-11 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. We’re going all offense this week:

It’s a bit shocking that we’re 24 games into Mike Shanahan’s tenure and this is the product we’re seeing on Sundays. I understand his explanation that injuries have disrupted the offense’s cohesion and that inconsistencies have resulted from inexperienced players shouldering more responsibility, but the Redskins haven’t even been competitive the last two weeks. Would they have beaten San Francisco or Buffalo if Santana Moss, Tim Hightower and Kory Lichtensteiger were healthy? Doubtful, and the dropoff from those first-stringers has been precipitous.

On offense, the team is not better in Year Two than it was in Year One – and perhaps that’s the biggest indictment of Mike Shanahan’s tenure through a season and a half. And this was true before Moss, Hightower, Lichtensteiger and Chris Cooley suffered their injuries. Through four games this season, the Redskins averaged 5.20 yards per play. In 2010, they averaged 5.36. Whatever reasons you cite for the lack of improvement – and there are several – the inescapable conclusion is that Shanahan has failed to advance the offense. Maybe he will over time – his track record leads one to believe he will – but these final eight games could feel like an eternity.

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The current state of the team reflects mostly on Mike Shanahan the Top Personnel Decision Maker. I look first at the quarterback position. An effective quarterback would mask other deficiencies, and Shanahan set back the Redskins’ building process by getting it wrong on Donovan McNabb. Neither John Beck nor Rex Grossman, quarterbacks on which Shanahan staked his reputation during training camp, have proven they’re capable of covering up Washington’s many flaws.

But it goes beyond quarterback, of course. Shanahan acquired 37 of the 53 players who were on the Redskins’ roster Sunday. This is his team now. He hand-picked all five offensive line starters for their current positions, and yet the Redskins’ two running backs averaged only 3.9 yards per carry against the 49ers. It was the fifth time in eight games this season they’ve averaged fewer than 4.0 rushing yards as a team.

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One way to consider the franchise’s prospects for 2012 and beyond is to ask how much better the Redskins would be if you plugged an average quarterback or an elite quarterback into the exact team that was on the field Sunday. In other words, how many of their current offensive problems are strictly because of the quarterback? And how much better could one quality quarterback prospect make them in 2012.

I have a feeling the film from Sunday’s game will show the amount is significant. Players at other positions committed mistakes – most notably fumbles by RB Roy Helu and WR Terrence Austin – but John Beck repeated some of the gaffes he committed in the Buffalo game.

He didn’t see some open receivers. “I feel like [I was] kind of open out there today,” receiver Jabar Gaffney said. “For whatever reason, John goes through his reads and a lot of times he didn’t come to me. That’s for coach to talk to John about.”

He held the ball too long at times and didn’t wait long enough at others. “We came back and looked at the photos that they give us on the sideline,” Beck said, “and there was a few where I could have waited a second longer and had a shot at something.”

Yes, the Redskins played some inexperienced players, but seven of their 10 non-quarterback offensive starters against San Francisco began the regular season as first-stringers. So the inexperience rationale carries only so much weight. At some point, you live and die with quarterback play. That’s becoming clear with each game.

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I interpreted Shanahan’s postgame comments as a concession that the postseason is out of reach and that evaluation mode is in full effect. And that makes sense. The 3-1 start warped some people’s expectations, but Shanahan’s best move at this point is to recognize the situation for what it is. He doesn’t have to say the word “rebuilding.” We all know it to be true.

“You could see that inconsistency today, but these guys are gaining valuable experience,” Shanahan said. “Not only the quarterback, but also the wide receivers, the running backs, eventually it’s going to pay dividends.”

He might as well see how Helu and Leonard Hankerson respond to expanded playing time. Same with Beck. At this point, does it matter if Beck or Rex is the quarterback? They’re not going to playoffs, so see if Beck has any sort of learning curve. The early returns aren’t encouraging, but it’d be short-sighted not to see it through.

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Beck’s struggles are proof of how difficult it is to find that franchise quarterback. He works as hard as anyone in the film room and in practice, and yet he still hasn’t conquered the position. There’s a baseline of talent required, and neither quarterback on the roster has proved they have it. Not that they’re alone. The Redskins over the last 20 years have a long list of those guys.

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Shanahan explained Sunday’s short passing approach:

“They’re a zone defensive team,” he said. “What you have to do is consistently throw the short passes. They played only a couple of plays in man-to-man coverage. They weren’t going to give us a chance to get the big play throughout the game; probably the fewest plays they’ve played in man coverage all year. They wanted us methodically to move the football down the field and get first downs, thinking that they could keep us out of the end zone or we would make mistakes before we got down there.

“And some teams will do that. There’s a lot of teams that will play zone defense and they’re good enough defensively over the year to put you in the situations that they want to do. But you cannot make mistakes like we did and beat a football team with that type of defense.”

…that’s enough for now. We have eight more weeks to dissect this mess.

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