The numbers that defined the Washington Redskins’ offense last week were ugly.
That offensive ineptitude, the kind that reached a contemptible level after three straight losses and more than 65 scoreless minutes of football, brought them to the opening kickoff at FedEx Field on Sunday with the understanding that they needed to do something different.
Different turned out to be calling on Roy Helu. The rookie running back who woke up Sunday with 27 carries and 12 career catches was to be their main target — their only target, really.
The Redskins turned to him and said, at least figuratively, “You’re our only hope.”
Helu knew about 24 hours in advance that he’d be making his first career start, But he certainly didn’t expect to be the man on the other end of a franchise-record 14 receptions or talking about breaking a mark shared by Hall of Famer Art Monk. When asked if he knew the game plan was to target him like that, Helu was blunt. “It wasn’t,” he said.
Helu was in possession of the ball on nearly 40 percent of the Redskins’ plays. Quarterback John Beck was shocked at the total when informed of it, and veteran Jabar Gaffney’s frustrations were thinly veiled at the seemingly one-note offense Washington ran in a 19-11 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
“I felt a couple times that I got behind the defense and wanted the play, wanted the ball,” Gaffney said. “I don’t want to be like a selfish guy going ‘Hey, I’m open, I’m open, I’m open,’ but there’s certain times that I’ll look at [Beck] and be like, ‘Hey, just throw it to me. Give me a chance.’ “
The only one who got much of a chance to generate anything was Helu, who is no stranger to carrying a team. At Nebraska, Helu found the end zone with regularity and routinely posted 100-yard games. He was the man then, too, but mostly for his ground game. His rushing game was stunted Sunday after a nine-carry, 40-yard first half, with Helu adding just one yard in the game’s final 30 minutes and throwing in a costly fumble.
Helu accounted for more than half of the team’s yardage, racking up 105 yards receiving, most via quick, short-field screen passes, and the 41 on the ground. His mind, however, was set squarely on the fumble — a 9-yard carry that ended with linebacker Patrick Willis stripping the ball - which led to the 49ers’ only touchdown.
“To be honest,” Helu said, “I don’t care [about the record 14 catches]. There were other plays like the fumble I had that take away from that. … The stats look good, but I had the fumble, and that was the biggest difference in the game score-wise. Just can’t have that stuff.”
His eyes rarely left the floor or the ceiling as he spoke, his frustration over what he termed “mental mistakes,” close to bubbling over. But the Redskins’ reliance on him left him little choice. The rookie performed well under circumstances that appeared to make him the team’s only option in an offense that continued to sputter.
“Helu has got the speed to make big plays,” coach Mike Shanahan said. “We have to get better offense. That’s obvious. For an offense to work, you need 11 guys going in the same direction.”