Kyle Shanahan, the vertical offense, and Rex Grossman

Washington Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has both been a lighting rod for criticism with regards to the remarkable ineffectiveness of the Redskins offense this year and a person caught in between a role of leadership and one where he has to hold the company line on a sinking ship.  It’s not a fun position that the younger Shanahan occupies right now in Washington, but this situation could have been avoided had the Redskins and Kyle Shanahan made the joint decision to not create a coaching marriage at the current time.  In short: Kyle Shanahan stepped into an awful situation and I don’t feel bad for him.

On Sunday in Seattle, the Redskins showed the world the kind of offense they can be with this personnel, though they got considerable help from the Seattle back seven.  The Redskins used a steady diet of play action to confuse the Seattle linebackers.  Rex Grossman was very patient in the pocket and waited for plays to develop.  His offensive line rewarded his confidence in the gameplan with above average pass protection.  And the Redskins receivers came through more often than not.

I got a chance this week to analyze Kyle Shanahan’s passing offense.  With Rex Grossman at the helm, the Redskins have a strong sense of offensive identity and a clear purose on offense: the Redskins are trying to stretch defenses vertically and will give an ample amount of protection to the quarterback to create passing lanes.  I don’t believe that the Redskins are taking an optimal offensive approach to using their offensive personnel.  Personally, I believe that the Redskinds have vastly underestimated the downside of running such an offense with 7-8 man protetctions on a consistent basis.  But for the first time all season, I think Kyle Shanahan showed some ability to adapt to some common defensive gameplans used against his offense.

Despite the common connotations that a “vertical stretch” offense may create, the Redskins don’t actually have very many opportunities to throw the ball behind the safeties.  Part of this is just not having a reliable receiver who can consistently get behind the safeties.  But the bigger issue is that the Redskins don’t really ever attack down the field more than 30 yards despite all the protection they try to give their quarterbacks.

The offensive philosophy really isn’t designed to get behind the safeties, rather, the design of most plays in the offense is to run the safeties off, then get the ball in front of the safeties.  These were also primary tenets of Al Saunders’ offense and of Jim Zorn’s offense.  In many ways, what the Redskins do now is exactly the same as what they’ve been doing since 2006, with the exception of the emphasis they put on protection.

But this has also resulted in an incredible turnover streak dating back to Week 3 of the 2010 season.  Kyle Shanahan’s offense is a timing offense with vertical elements, and the Redskins passing game gets itself into all sorts of problems for two main reasons: it can’t do anything to beat man coverage down the field, and sometimes the play design of longer-developing plays put the Redskins quarterbacks in a situation where they are literally trying to beat the drop of the linebacker to the spot of the throw made to a stationary (otherwise open) receiver with every other player in the progression already eliminated.  In more direct terms, the Redskins play action offense is build around high-risk, medium-reward passing concepts.

The positives are easy to see from a statistical perspective.  Rex Grossman has a career high completion percentage in 2011, and he has a career high in yards per attempt.  Last season, Donovan McNabb’s 7.2 yards per attempt was higher than his Philadelphia average of 6.9.  But when Donovan McNabb’s interception rate reached the highest point it his career last season, people becamed alarmed with the ease at the rate of turnovers, and worse than that, Rex Grossman’s 5.1 INT rate this year is the highest by any starting quarterback in recent memory, and the highest rate of Rex Grossman’s career; a career which hasn’t exactly been free of criticism for carelessness with the football.  

I even went back to Matt Schaub’s career numbers to see if his INT rate dropped after Kyle Shanahan left town.  It did.  Schaub’s career INT rate has fallen by about half a percentage point (one pick per 200 attempts) with Rick Dennison calling the plays in the same offense.  

On play action passes by the Redskins, the play action is required to hold the linebackers around the line of scrimmage, but it is these linebackers who often wind up beating the ball to the spot of the throw and creating interceptions.  Why don’t other similar vertical stretch offenses run into these problems?  Because the Redskins often do not use receivers on short routes to hold the linebackers near the line, the timing of the play must be perfect becasue they are literally trying to beat the drop of the LB to the spot of the catch.

A fundamental issue with the Redskins offense is that even with 7 or 8 pass protectors in the backfield, good pass rushers can disrupt the timing of Grossman’s movement in the pocket off of play action by collapsing the pocket from one of three directions.  Defense can also use blitz concepts to make Grossman move his feet and to throw off the timing of the play action pass.  On the plus side, the Redskins have had some success using play action to take these blitzers out of the play entirely by taking advantage of the fact that each player in the front has a run assignment and a pass assignment on every play.

These fundamentals also explain why the Redskins have been so poor on third down in the Kyle Shanahan era.  Protection is a problem in these downs because play action isn’t viable as a way to protect the quarterback.  The Redskins do not have four receivers the opponent has to defend, in fact when Santana Moss and Leonard Hankerson were both out, Jabar Gaffney was often the target of every third down play in the playbook.

So even though the Redskins passing game attempts to succeed through tried and true proven NFL passing concepts, the actual synthesis of the Mike Shanahan play action game and Kyle Shanahan’s timing, vertical stretch offense has created a world where any offensive efficiency is highly reliant on the perfection of timing between quarterback and receiver, on defenses not identifying the play very quickly, and on pinpoint execution.  To execute such an offense, the Redskins employ players like Jabar Gaffney, Fred Davis, Rex Grossman, and John Beck.  In light of these facts, it’s difficult to see how the Redskins could have ever predicted this would work.

My take is that there is plenty of things the Redskins can do with this offense to make the current personnel work, although I would not recommend to any offensive mind that they go out of their way to win with these current players.  I don’t think Kyle Shanahan is the right Shanahan to blame for building the roster this way.  I don’t Kyle’s ego is big enough to think that he can have consistent success with this personnel.  The problem is that he hasn’t had enough success, even with the current personnel.  I have done plenty of research that suggests that offensive statistics will predict each other in a long sample, but this hasn’t been the case for the Redskins over the last two seasons.  The Redskins TD/INT rate never reflects the fact that they move the ball through the air with ease and rarely get sacked.

That doesn’t compute, in terms of understanding the Redskins offense, until you consider the hubris of the Redskins coaches and of their starting quarterback.  The Redskins haven’t shown the ability to adjust their offense to take fewer negative plays until very recently.  And without fewer negative plays, the Redskins cannot end long drives in touchdowns because with the lack of a vertical passing threat, even a vertical stretch passing offense cannot consistently put the ball in the end zone.

The Redskins do the same thing every week.  And I think with better personnel and more depth, that this offense would be really difficult to defend.  It’s easy to point the finger at the personnel guy, but until then, it would be smart to be able to get a good player the ball in the slot and let him work against a physically disadvantaged cover guy.  The Redskins never do this.  Their TE runs vertical crossing routes and deep comebacks.  The flats are where the fullback goes, but only when the fullback is healthy enough to play.

So what changed with the Redskins offense this week?  Well, they went to a four reciver tight bunch for the first time this year.  Kyle Shanahan has long used the bunch, but because man coverage had been so effective at taking away what the Redskins like to do, the tighter formations were useful for forcing the Seahawks to run zone coverages, which is what the Redskins like to attack most off of play action.  It was nice to see even the first signs of the Redskins adjusting to the opponents’ tendencies.

When I review the Jets defensive tendencies for this upcoming game, I’ll address the Redskins passing offense and how those concepts apply to the most difficult schematic defense the Redskins will face this year: a game that is an excellent litmus test for the viability of this offensive scheme going forward.

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