- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 27, 2011


SEATTLE — The game felt lost, like so many others. Then, for an instant, Roy Helu seemed to float. And the Washington Redskins rookie transformed the raw afternoon where wind and miscues and seagulls swirled around CenturyLink Field and provided the team something as rare as a dry day here.

Progress. Not another tease. But actual progress for the Redskins in this lost season that sheets of rain pelting fans in neon green ponchos Sunday afternoon couldn’t wash away.

Before Helu went airborne in the fourth quarter, the Redskins trailed the Seattle Seahawks by 10 points. A seventh straight loss appeared inevitable, after a penalty-marred game dominated by fisticuffs, finger-wagging, jawing and even a neck-stomp between plays that left the officiating crew scurrying around like bouncers after a bar’s last call.

Twenty-eight hundred miles from Washington, the Redskins found themselves in familiar territory, from quarterback Rex Grossman’s ill-advised throws on two interceptions (plus two other passes the Seahawks nearly picked off) to critical penalties and Graham Gano’s fourth blocked field goal attempt this season.

Enter Helu, the 22-year-old rookie running back, who grabbed a pitch in the shotgun formation, sprinted to the left and hurdled cornerback Roy Lewis with the all the difficulty of stepping over a pair of cleats. Helu’s stride didn’t break.

An armful of air and awkward meeting with the turf rewarded Lewis, while Helu crossed into the end zone 5 seconds later with a 28-yard touchdown.

The rally was on. So is Helu’s ascent.

Coach Mike Shanahan wanted to heft the offensive load on Helu on Sunday, wanted to see what he could do against the NFL’s eighth-ranked rush defense.

So, the rookie touched the ball on 12 of the Redskins‘ first 21 plays. Not so long ago, Shanahan worried about putting too much pressure on Helu, the 105th overall pick in April’s draft.

“He’s not ready for that,” Shanahan said.

That changed Sunday.

Thirty touches. One hundred sixty-two total yards. One hundred eight yards rushing for the Redskins‘ woeful ground attack, ranked 30th in the NFL. The first half wasn’t over before he surpassed his career-high of 10 carries, helped by the absence of the injured Alan Branch, the Seahawks‘ immense run-stuffing defensive tackle.

After the work, it was a wonder Helu had the energy to leap Lewis in a single bound.

Helu wasn’t spectacular. No ankle-breaking moves or game-breaking runs. Play after play, he pounded the ball or caught swing passes out of the backfield. Simple. Effective. And a step forward for the Redskins‘ running back carousel.

Ex-starter Tim Hightower is out for the year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Tashard Choice was cut after a three-week stint. Evan Royster, a rookie from Penn State, was active Sunday for the first time. And last year’s backfield revelation, Ryan Torain, has been, at best, erratic.

Helu showed Sunday he can be a piece of the long-term solution to the Redskins‘ offensive woes.

Questions, of course, remain about Helu. Can he break big runs in the NFL like he did at Nebraska, where he averaged 6.6 yards per carry? Can he hold up to a season’s worth of shots? Can his pass blocking continue to improve?

Those can wait.

Any sliver of progress for the Redskins, any indication Shanahan’s youth movement is developing answers means as much as stealing a win Sunday, as much as Helu’s flight.

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