The wheels have fallen off the Washington Redskins‘ train after a promising start. What’s that? You bought your plane ticket for the February trip to Indianapolis back in early October? Ouch.
Injuries to key players disrupted continuity and exposed a lack of depth. Quarterback play remains a major problem. Four straight losses — two ugly ones, in particular — derailed the optimism generated by a 3-1 start.
Barring an unforeseen turnaround, coach Mike Shanahan’s second season is going to fall well short of a playoff berth. Building a contender takes time, though, especially considering Shanahan took over a 4-12 team made up of the oldest roster in the NFL.
At the season’s halfway point, then, a recommended measure for fans’ self-preservation is adjusting expectations and measuring success in ways other than wins and losses. Here are eight elements to watch for the rest of the season:
1. There’s John Beck’s progress, and then there’s everything else. His evolution is the storyline of the second half. Shanahan has said he expects Beck to improve his field vision and timing as Beck builds experience. And because Rex Grossman isn’t a significantly better option, it makes sense to see the final eight games through with Beck and offer him time to grow. He’s under contract for 2012, so even if he doesn’t take off, he might have to serve as the bridge to a quarterback prospect next season.
His pocket instincts must improve — recognizing open receivers, maximizing big play opportunities and getting rid of the ball at the appropriate time given the pass rush and routes he’s waiting on. The Redskins believe in his intelligence, arm strength and mobility, but he has to show he can consistently move the offense by making smart decisions and accurate throws.
2. Besides improved quarterback play, it’s clear that the Redskins need some (yes, more than one) big-play receivers. With Santana Moss out, their corps of Jabar Gaffney, Leonard Hankerson, Anthony Armstrong and Terrence Austin isn’t exactly keeping opposing defensive coordinators up at night.
Receivers’ production depends partly on the quarterback, of course, but the Redskins don’t have a proven home run threat or an imposing body that Beck can rely on to make plays if the scheme doesn’t give him an obvious read. Shanahan recognizes this shortcoming and will address it in the offseason. Until then, Hankerson’s growth is a focal point. He improved his route-running in practice since the regular season started, and he has the length to catch inaccurate passes. If he consistently produces, that would ease the burden on Shanahan’s offseason search for receivers.
3. The Redskins‘ lack of offensive line depth has undone their season. In Shanahan’s defense, he devoted resources over the past two offseasons to bring in new starters at all five positions. And because the line rotted after it was neglected by the previous regime, depth will take time to establish. However, Shanahan drafted seventh-rounders left guard Maurice Hurt and Erik Cook. Hurt started last week and struggled with his knee bend and with stunts at times, just as he did throughout the preseason. He’ll experience growing pains during the final eight games, but significant improvement with his technique would help the Redskins establish some depth.
4. Shanahan built a reputation for engineering successful rushing attacks, regardless of the running back. So maybe it’s no surprise that fourth-round rookie Roy Helu was the fifth back who has started for the Redskins since Shanahan took over. But that’s also an indication that none has distinguished himself. Helu could establish some stability by demonstrating in the final eight games that he possesses the patience, timing, vision and footwork required to excel in the outside zone scheme. His pass protection already has significantly improved from the preseason.
5. Barry Cofield is eight games into his transition from 4-3 defensive tackle to 3-4 nose tackle, and the results have been mixed. He’s still learning how to battle double teams, and opponents still are blocking him in ways he hasn’t seen before. San Francisco’s linemen, for example, frequently pulled, and he had to adjust. It stands to reason that he’ll wear down physically during the second half of the season. Coaches believe he still has significant room to grow at the position, and his progress will be evident in the overall quality of the run defense.
6. Strong safety LaRon Landry’s contract expires at the end of the season. After missing all of training camp and the preseason with a sore Achilles tendon, he hasn’t made as big of an impact as the Redskins‘ are accustomed to. He’s on pace for 88 tackles a year after posting 101. He could earn a lot of money if his play improves. Turnovers, in particular, would drive his price up.
7. Injuries already have forced a few reserves into expanded roles. Opportunities for other players could arise with further attrition. Newly signed defensive end Kentwan Balmer was a first-round pick in 2008. Coaches like his build and believe he could contribute to the rotation. Outside linebacker Rob Jackson has flashed as an edge rusher but has struggled against the run. Second-year inside linebacker Perry Riley is the second-leading special teams tackler, but he hasn’t had an extended opportunity on defense. Any playing time for those three, in particular, would be intriguing.
8. Brandon Banks was a dynamo in his rookie season. He had the potential to take it the distance every time he touched the ball. He hasn’t been as effective this season, though, for several reasons. Teams are focused on stopping him after what he put on film last year. Whether he returns to form could shape some of Shanahan’s offseason priorities.
Defensive MVP: Ryan Kerrigan