- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 2, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION

ST. LOUIS — Sixty minutes can be an awfully long time in football. As the quarters pass, you can think you’re watching one kind of game, only to discover, as events unfold, that you’re watching another.

The Washington Redskins played a game like that Sunday against the St. Louis Rams. For 45 minutes, they were thoroughly in control, leading 17-0, running the ball with authority and threatening to turn Sam Bradford into a chalk outline on the Edward Jones Dome turf. But then the momentum turned, one Rex Grossman interception followed another, and in the final minutes the Redskins found themselves in an all-too-familiar place: trying to head off disaster.

This time they managed to, and that’s the solace in their 17-10, much-closer-than-it-needed-to-be win. On an afternoon when a loss would have been pretty much inexcusable, they survived. Sacks by Stephen Bowen and Brian Orakpo quashed one late Rams threat, another by Adam Carriker helped short-circuit the last St. Louis series, and the Redskins got to go home with 3-1 record, which puts them in first place in the perplexing NFC East.


Their bye week shouldn’t be quite as enjoyable as it might have been, though, because the same questions that were raised in the Monday night loss at Dallas were raised again Sunday. Such as: Is this offense going to continue to have trouble putting teams away? And: How much of this trouble can fairly be blamed on the quarterback?

Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty to like about the Redskins’ play against the Rams. Their storming of Bradford produced seven sacks (2 1/2 by Pro Bowler Orakpo); only once since 1990 have they had more (Dec. 13, 2009 at Oakland, Vinny Cerrato’s last game as general manager). In all, the Washington defense yielded just 172 yards, and as Mike Shanahan correctly pointed out, “Any time you hold an offense under 200 yards in the National Football League, that doesn’t happen very often.”

Offensively, meanwhile, Ryan Torain was taken out of deep storage, gained 100 yards — including a 20-yard touchdown — in his first eight carries, and threatened to make Tim Hightower irrelevant by midseason. At any rate, it now looks like the Redskins have three backs who can do some damage — these two and rookie thunderbolt Roy Helu.

The larger issue, though, is: Why didn’t the offense score more points if the running game was going so well? It piled up 196 yards rushing and had possession for more than 35 minutes, yet generated only two TDs and a field goal. That isn’t enough — or rather, it isn’t enough if you’re playing a credible club, which St. Louis (0-4) isn’t at this stage. The Rams couldn’t protect their QB, couldn’t catch the ball and, too often, couldn’t even get the snap count right.

Grossman wasn’t entirely to blame for the offense’s difficulties. His first interception, with 12:45 left, went through the hands of usually reliable Santana Moss, and in the next Washington possession Hightower dropped a third-and-3 pass that would have gone for a first down. Still, the failure to slam the door in St. Louis, six days after the Redskins failed to slam the door in Dallas, is cause for concern.

And let’s not forget, this is Shanahan’s side of the ball, where his genius is supposed to lie. But in Grossman’s past three games he has posted passer ratings of lower than 80 (74.9, 77.5 and now 48.5). That’s a fairly lengthy stretch of below-average work. Also, unlike Bradford, who was pressured to distraction, Grossman wasn’t sacked, though he was forced to flee the pocket a time or two.

“I think we’re playing OK,” he said. “We’re making plays at times; we’ve moved the ball pretty well. We need to score more points. … We know in those tough games, we need to throw that knockout punch anytime we get another team in that situation.”

Give Grossman credit for honesty — and for seeing the situation clearly. After all, the Redskins aren’t going to blow anybody out scoring 17 points — or 16, which is how many they put up against the Cowboys. Generally speaking, you’re asking to be beaten if that’s all you can generate. Dallas, of course, obliged them, driving for the winning field goal in the closing minutes, and St. Louis nearly did, forcing a turnover that left them just 19 yards from the tying score.

On the plus side, the Redskins are 3-1 — and hey, nobody else in the division is any better. Indeed, on the same day they played with fire against the Rams, the Cowboys and Eagles both got burned. Dallas blew a 27-3 lead at home against Detroit, and Philadelphia coughed up a 23-3 lead, also at home, against San Francisco. See? They couldn’t deliver the “knockout punch,” either.

But the Redskins still have their biggest challenges ahead of them. They still have to play Philly, the most talented 1-3 club in the league, twice. They still have to go to New York to face the Giants and to Seattle, a graveyard for visiting clubs, to face the Seahawks. They still have to slog their way through the rugged AFC East. In many ways, this first month is the calm before the storm.

So the Redskins need to spend these next two weeks as productively as they can. That means getting Grossman playing better and getting the passing game as a whole untracked. (Maybe it’s just me, but Chris Cooley as an H-back doesn’t seem like the best use of the man’s abilities.) And if Grossman can’t be made to play better, if this is as good as it gets for him, well, we’ll deal with that can of worms later.