We never really got to see Mike Shanahan’s offense last season. All we saw was the off-Broadway production of it, starring Donovan McNabb (now in Minnesota), Ryan Torain (a sideline observer so far this year), Keiland Williams (cut at the end of training camp) and stand-ins such as Clinton Portis, Joey Galloway and Roydell Williams (all long gone).
Those were some of the players Shanahan tried to jury-rig an attack with in his first season as Washington’s coach. It wasn’t pretty. The Redskins averaged a mere 18.9 points a game, and the offense seemed to specialize in the three-and-out. Shanny and his offensive coordinator/son Kyle would tell you they were victims of circumstances, that the NFL’s uncapped year and (temporarily) more stringent free agent rules tied their hands rebuilding-wise. Even so, there was a fair amount of miscalculation — or maybe just wishful thinking — on their part.
In Year 2, though, most of the main roles have been recast, and the early returns are encouraging. In wins over the New York Giants and Arizona Cardinals, the Redskins’ offense has looked much more — how shall I put it? — Shanahanian. The biggest difference is that the coach has more weapons at his disposal, more ways to take advantage of the defense’s weaknesses.
For starters, he has a quarterback, Rex Grossman, who runs the offense better than McNabb ever did — basically because he’s been schooled in it for three years now. Grossman may not be John Elway or Steve Young, a couple of other QBs Shanahan has worked with, but he usually gets the ball to the right receiver. That’s where any passing attack begins.
Grossman also can avail himself of two upgrades at running back, Tim Hightower and rookie Roy Helu; two viable options at tight end, Chris Cooley and the emergent Fred Davis; and a much deeper corps of wideouts. How deep? Well, last season’s No. 2, Anthony Armstrong, is now No. 3 because of the arrival of steady veteran Jabar Gaffney (who’s on pace for 64 catches, 928 yards and eight touchdowns). And against the Cardinals, another experienced receiver who was added to the mix, Donte Stallworth, made his first two grabs for Washington.
Granted, the Redskins haven’t gone up against any killer defenses yet. (The normally troublesome Giants were missing Pro Bowl ends Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora.) Still, Washington is moving the ball much better than it was a year ago, as evidenced by the 455 yards it gained Sunday. (It hasn’t rolled up more in the first two weeks of a season since 1999, the last time the Redskins won the division title.)
And it all goes back to having more alternatives on offense. As Redskin-turned-Cardinal Vonnie Holliday said after the game, “This [Washington] team is a much better team than they were last year. … Offensively, what they were able to do running the ball … “
Yes, let’s start with that. The tag team of Hightower (96 yards rushing, 10 receiving) and Helu (74 yards rushing, 38 receiving) gave the Cards all kinds of problems with their speed and ability to catch the ball. Consider the second quarter. In one series, Hightower swept left end for 17 yards, came out for a breather, and Helu picked up 10 yards over right tackle on the next play. That set up a field goal.
The next time the Redskins had the ball, Hightower broke a 20-yarder around right end, was given a rest a play later, and Helu immediately followed with gains of 33 (screen pass) and 11 (run) yards. That led to a touchdown.
A tandem like that will test a defense’s, uh, cardiovascular endurance. (Little-known fact: It was just the fourth time in the past 25 seasons that two Washington backs have had 100 yards from scrimmage in the same game.)
Once Cooley returns to 100 percent after missing the preseason to rehab his left knee, he and Davis figure to torment the opposition in much the same manner. When they’re on the field together, which is often, they’re a particular headache. Who do you cover — Cooley, the two-time Pro Bowler, or Davis, who has racked up more receiving yards in the first two weeks (191) than Cooley ever has in a two-game stretch? (The latter’s top two-game total is 185 in 2007.)
At wideout, meanwhile, Moss (Cardinals), Gaffney (Giants) and Armstrong (Giants) have caught TD passes and been major factors in the club’s two victories. The offense just didn’t have that kind of variety last year, the kind that puts strain on a defense.
Egos can sometimes get in the way when an offense is so egalitarian. But from the sound of things, everybody is on board. Cooley talked after the opener of his friendship with Davis and how “happy” he was “with the way Fred stepped up and played. I thought that was amazing for our offense. It’s no surprise for anyone [in the Washington locker room] to see him make catches like that.”
And after the Cardinals game, Hightower said he agreed wholeheartedly with the coaches’ decision to go with Helu, “the hot hand,” at times. It’s just the direction pro football is going — interchangeable running backs, multiple tight ends, four- and five-receiver sets — and the Redskins are smart enough to understand that.
Shanahan’s offense is far from a finished product, but more of the pieces are in place. It took awhile — a lot longer than he wanted it to — but he finally has an attack that actually attacks.