No Washington Redskins fan should be very happy with Saturday’s holiday present from the team: a 33-26 home loss to a Minnesota Vikings club that was in the running for the first pick in the draft. After a series of encouraging performances, the Redskins had a relapse and played like the stumblebums they were earlier in the season, when they were finding creative ways to drop six straight. For their efforts — or lack thereof — they wrapped up last place in the NFC East for the fifth time in six years.
It wasn’t all gloom and doom, though. Take the running game, which has struggled to gain traction amid all the injuries and inhaling (see Trent Williams). Even though rookie revelation Roy Helu couldn’t go against the Vikings because of knee and toe ailments, another rookie, Evan Royster, stepped in and rushed for 132 yards, a team high this season.
Think about that for a moment. A sixth-round draft choice who began the year on the practice squad went over 100 yards in his first NFL start — operating behind a line that featured two more rookies, left tackle Willie Smith (who was passed over in the draft) and left guard Mo Hurt (who was taken in the seventh round and, like Royster, began the year on the practice squad). And the Vikes, truth be known, have a pretty solid run defense. In fact, they rank in the top dozen in the league in that department.
So take heart, Redskins Nation. The offensive line, which was desperately lacking in depth back in September, now has some acceptable replacement parts. Indeed, the unit is functioning so well right now that it doesn’t seem to matter who’s carrying the ball, Helu or Royster. Yards will be gained.
This bodes well for the future — on a couple of levels. First of all, the line should be more injury resistant next season (assuming, that is, most of the players are retained). You always want that kind of stability, of course, but you especially want it when you’re trying to bring along a young quarterback (and Mike Shanahan will almost certainly draft one in the spring).
Having a reliable running attack will take some of the pressure off the kid, whoever he is. The same goes for the pass protection, which hasn’t been bad lately, either. Too many first-round QBs have had their growth stunted by shaky O-lines. If the Redskins are going to make a major investment in a Quarterback of the Future, they have to create the proper environment for him. Otherwise, they’ll just be wasting their money — and a few more years of their fans’ time.
Helu and Royster, two awfully nice finds on the last day of the draft, should help in this regard, too. Roy has already become the first rookie back in Redskins history to rush for 100 yards in three consecutive games, and Evan, though not quite as fast, displays the same hard running ability and north-sound mentality.
And let’s face it, if Helu is already getting dinged after just four weeks of hard labor (30, 27, 29 and 26 touches), he might not be a Clinton Portis-type workhorse. He might be a guy you want to rotate with another back — such as Royster (or Tim Hightower, currently on the mend from knee surgery). There’s nothing wrong with that; plenty of teams go with the running-back-by-committee approach.
One area where the running game could stand to improve, though, is in the red zone. As Rex Grossman said Saturday, “Too many times we settled for field goals” — four times in all. And part of the reason was that Royster’s gains got substantially smaller as the Redskins neared the goal line. He averaged a healthy 6.9 yards a carry for the game, but picked up only 1 (from the Minnesota 9), 3 (from the Minnesota 28) and 3 (from the Minnesota 11) yards, all on first down, when the offense moved into scoring territory. On each of those drives, the Redskins came away with only three points (usually after coordinator Kyle Shanahan had bagged the run and turned to the pass).
But then, the whole unit needs to get better in the red zone. Graham Gano has booted way too many gimmes this season (13 from 20-to-29 yards). The larger point, though, is this: Six weeks ago, with bodies dropping everywhere on offense, this looked like a lost season for the Redskins. Granted, it hasn’t been a winning season, but there are glimmers of hope - and one of them is what’s happening along the O-line.