The Redskins lost more than a game on Sunday as several of their top players went down with injuries, leaving the offense in a state of crisis just six games into the season.
Forget who’s playing quarterback, the offense is running out of options at several other positions. Washington will head up to Toronto down offensive captain and wide receiver Santana Moss, starting tailback Tim Hightower, tight end Chris Cooley and left guard Kory Lichtensteiger.
“I don’t think I’ve ever lost so many just on one side so quickly,” said Mike Shanahan.
But that’s life in the NFL and now it’s time for the younger players to step up. Terrence Austin, Roy Helu, Niles Paul and Leonard Hankerson – all Shanahan draft picks – have a tremendous opportunity to sneak onto the radar for 2011 and beyond.
It’s hard not to think the sun is already setting on the Redskins season, but the moral victory of unearthing a few core players for the future would certainly mean a lot to a team still searching for an identity.
Becoming a Shanahan disciple isn’t difficult. Work hard in practice, show good character and chances are you’ll get a shot. The past two weeks, Austin has been more involved in the offense while the coach praised Paul for his contributions on both special teams and at receiver.
The trick is performing in game situations. While Austin and Paul have impressed, Hankerson had a miscommunication with John Beck on Sunday, leading to an interception. Not a good start for a guy who had a bad rap in training camp for dropping passes.
“They have to – number one – prove that they can handle the pressure,” Shanahan said of the younger players. “We have a lot of young players that we’re going to get a chance to see how much talent they do have and hopefully they can improve and hopefully it’s quick.”
Having them play such important roles isn’t ideal, but with the offense struggling to stay afloat, it’s a dream scenario for any newcomer hoping to make his mark.
Take for example Helu who was competing for time with Ryan Torain and Hightower in the backfield. With the latter out for the rest of the season, it becomes crucial Helu quickly takes the next step in his development. There’s no questioning his raw talent in space, but it might take some time for him to adapt to Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme.
The sooner Helu and the younger players let instinct take over, the better. Until then, it’s a learning process set in motion a bit more suddenly than anyone expected.
“We have to win,” Shanahan said. “That’s the nature of the game. We have to find a way to win. The guys that will step up are guys that are going to be starters. They’re on our football team for a reason. Now, we have a chance to see what they could do.”
Throwing young players into the fire is a double-edged sword for coaches with a full roster of players. However, Shanahan doesn’t have much of a choice. He certainly doesn’t want to rely this heavily on reserves, but in the grand scheme of things, it could help him identify which players should be here for the long haul.