Mike Shanahan Knows Offense? Where Should Expectations Be Set in Year Two?

The Redskins may as well choose “strength in numbers” to be their team mantra for the 2011 season, because any success that they acheive in 2011 is going to come almost exclusively to improved depth on the offensive side of the ball.

We’re quickly closing in on two months removed from the NFL Draft, and from 1,000 feet above the process, I can already see the luster wearing off the Redskins first and second round picks.  Ryan Kerrigan and Jarvis Jenkins have been brought to Washington to fill specific needs.  To a degree, that lowers the potential value the Redskins can receive out of those picks.  Jenkins is a 3-4 RDE.  That’s what he will learn to play in the NFL.  Ryan Kerrigan steps into a system where he will be a complementary player to the already established Brian Orakpo.  He’s going to work on things that will allow the Redskins to get the most out of their defense.  It’s not a great situation for Kerrigan, but the Redskins need him in his role to be successful on defense, whether or not he becomes an elite performer.  Jenkins is going to be unsung in his role, regardless of whether he’s a contributor to success or a problem on the interior who gets run over by offensive linemen.

For better or for worse, the 2011 Redskins draft will be graded based on the contributions to the offense made by the players drafted between rounds 3 and 6.  That also includes the one defensive player drafted in that range, fifth round safety Dejon Gomes, who will play free safety in this defense and has a good shot to succeed OJ Atogwe in the secondary.  But the focus of the draft, and this article, will drift away from Gomes and towards the five offensive players drafted in rounds 3-6 by the Redskins, and why they matter so much in evaluating what kind of team the Redskins will have in 2011.

Behind guys like Leonard Hankerson, Roy Helu, Aldrick Robinson, Niles Paul, and Evan Royster, the Redskins’ draft class in 2011 has sufficiently loaded them at the positions of WR and RB.  These guys are all rookies, mind you, but that’s not reason to not expect them all to help turn this franchise around.  These were all value picks, and none of them (save Royster and maybe Niles Paul) reasonably should have been available when the Redskins took them.  Hankerson, Robinson, and Helu were more than just glorified scheme selections, they were undervalued by the draft process.  Hankerson, Helu, and Robinson had draft profiles of first, second, and third rounders in that order, though they only cost the Redskins third, fourth, and sixth round picks.

Players similar to Hankerson have made great NFL receivers.  He’s in the mold of Sidney Rice and Vincent Jackson as a bigger player who can run and has good body control.  Helu becomes the only player on the Redskins roster at RB with true breakaway speed, but he can contribute in all facets of the game, and there’s no reason he should have been available in the fourth round.  Robinson has only adequate hands, but he offers a great size/speed combo and is a deceptively underrated route runner.  Think Jacoby Ford without the ability to pluck the ball.  Wheras Paul and Royster figure to be more of contributor types, Hankerson, Helu, and Robinson offer potential stars in this offense down the road.

Given how quickly the Redskins have reloaded at the important skill positions, does this not speed up the timetable for contention.  It needs to, frankly.  The Redskins may have no in-house long term solution at quarterback, but they’ve never been as strong at fielding runners and receivers, going back perhaps a decade, as they will be under Kyle Shanahan in 2011.  And while the offensive line is still very much a work in progress, I don’t know how much longer you can issue excuses for not getting that group in order.  In 2011, the Redskins will return five linemen all acquired by the current regime.

And thus comes the Shanahan conundrum.  For the first time since maybe the very, very beginning of the Zorn era, it does feel like the Redskins have something going on offense.  They have runners, and receivers, and they should be the best offensive line the Redskins have had in many years.  The quarterback situation is going to depress offensive expectations in 2011, and really, when you line up this season against all other “second years” of recent Redskin play callers, this is perhaps the first time where the Redskins have actually actively bolstered the group that the coordinator will be working with in his second season.  Al Saunders got Pete Kendall in 2007.  Very good player, but he was pretty much working with the same group as 2006.  Jim Zorn got…nothing in 2009.  And in 2011, Kyle Shanahan is getting a bunch of homegrown new toys, possibly a few key free agents, and will get to put his fingerprint on this team.

And because of all of those ingredients, it would be ridiculous to postpone expectation on this group of players and coaches simply because they do not have a quarterback.  The Redskins aren’t going to make the playoffs in 2011 because they don’t exactly have a defense or special teams to lean on, and the offense is still very young.  But how could this group fail to improve over whatever ugliness we saw in 2010 and be deemed a promising group?  The Redskins were bad offensively last year under Donovan McNabb and Kyle Shanahan.  Far worse than they were the year before under Jason Campbell and Sherm Lewis, and a total collapse from where they were after Jim Zorn’s first year.

When the Shanahan’s were hired, a common refrain was that, if nothing else, they “knew” offense.  If this was bourne out by the collapse of the defense, then I concede the argument.  But if the Shanahan’s truly have offensive “knowledge” that the rest of us aren’t privy to, that has to show up on the field in 2011, correct?

Is there any way the Redskins could decline in offense while shuffling John Beck and Rex Grossman, and decide to retain Mike and Kyle Shanahan in 2012?  I do not know what Dan Snyder and Bruce Allen are thinking here, but I do get the idea that there’s as much pressure on the Shanahan’s in 2011 as there was on Zorn in 2009.  Sure, the leash will be longer: going 1-2 in the first three weeks of the season will not prompt a secret coaching search for 2012, but if things go a whole season and fail to get better, what is the hope?  There will be none.  The hope right now is that the draft class the Redskins picked in 2011 can spearhead an offensive revival in 2011 under whoever the Redskins choose to put under center; the beneficiary of a strong draft class and fertile offensive environment.  Generally, when dealing with rookies, we talk about “hope” and “progress”, but if our coaching staff really does know offense, they need to get a bigger contribution out of these guys than the Redskins did in 2008 when we watched Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly actively torpedo the Redskins offense at the end of the season.

It wouldn’t come completely out of left field if the Redskins offense struggles again in 2011, but I suspect that the idea of “trust in the Shanahan’s” will die if it does.  And when you don’t have faith in the coaching staff, there’s not much between the Redskins and yet another regime change.  So whether or not you feel the Redskins have a decent shot at winning in 2011, clearly, the time is ticking on the current offensive group.  Not knowing who the quarterback is will be no excuse for offensive improvement in 2011.