Redskins coach Mike Shanahan is correct that his ground game seems to be running in quicksand – although his bizarre decision to start Ryan Torain over emerging rookie back Roy Helu at Miami last Sunday didn’t help.

It galls Shanahan that his rushing attack is the NFL’s least productive with just 86.6 yards per game, a year after ranking 30th on the ground in his Washington debut with a 91.3-yard average.

After all, Shanahan’s offense led the NFL in rushing during his 14 years in Denver with six different backs topping 1,000 yards in a season.

However, the game has changed since Terrell Davis topped 2,000 yards and led the Broncos to their second straight Super Bowl title 13 seasons ago.

These days, the NFL is a passing league. The New York Giants are just 29th in rushing but they lead the NFC East. The undefeated Green Bay Packers, the defending Super Bowl champions, rank in the bottom third in rushing. Last night, Green Bay averaged only 2.9 yards but still pounded Minnesota 45-7.

Of the six NFC teams winning records, only San Francisco and Chicago rank higher on the ground than thru the air. Traditional AFC run-based contenders Baltimore and Pittsburgh have joined perennial conference powerhouse New England in ranking significantly higher passing the ball than running it.

It would certainly be a major boon to Washington’s sputtering offense if it had a legitimate starting quarterback, but I would argue that what the Redskins are also truly missing is a feared tandem at wide receiver.

Since longtime No. 1 receiver Santana Moss broke his left hand during the first half of Week 7, Shanahan has tried veterans Anthony Armstrong, Terrence Austin, Donte Stallworth (since-released) and David Anderson (signed last week) as well as rookies Leonard Hankerson and Niles Paul opposite Jabar Gaffney.

In the three-plus games since, all of them except Hankerson have combined for just 11 catches and 110 yards. Hankerson was coming on with 13 catches for 163 yards but now he’s done for the year with a hip injury.

The offense wasn’t great during Moss’ five full games, averaging just 17 points as the Redskins went 3-2. But that’s a heck of a lot better than Washington’s 0-4 record since while averaging only 10 points.

Moss figures to be back for the final five games, but it’s unlikely he’ll reach even 60 catches since he had just 25 in five-plus games before he was hurt. Gaffney, who has been solid but not special since being acquired from Denver in July, is on pace for exactly 60 catches.

The last season that the Redskins had two wideouts with at least 60 catches was 1999 when Michael Westbrook and Albert Connell each topped that figure and 1,100 receiving yards. Not so coincidentally, Washington won the NFC East that year and hasn’t done so since.

The only other season during the past two decades that the Redskins had two such productive wideouts was in 1991 when Art Monk and Gary Clark each bettered 70 catches and 1,000 yards. Not so coincidentally, that was Washington’s last NFC title-winning year before 1999 and its last Super Bowl championship season.

While Moss has been terrific during his seven seasons with the Redskins, you have to wonder how good he might have been if there had been someone to take away coverage as Monk and Clark did for each other for years and Charley Taylor and Bobby Mitchell teamed up for in the 1960s. All except Clark are in the Hall of Fame.

Antwaan Randle El, who averaged 47 catches from 2006-2009, wasn’t that dynamic partner for Moss nor was David Patten, who caught just 22 balls in 2005.

Armstrong, who became a starter last October and averaged 19.8 yards, third-best in the league, on his 40 grabs seemed to be ready to be that guy in freeing Moss to catch a career-high 93 balls at age 31, but he has been near-invisible this season because of a hamstring that cost him 2-1/2 games and what the coaches feel is an inability to beat bump-and-run coverage.

So yes, Mike, your offense can’t run the ball, but ultimately, what’s really holding it back is its failure to open up the field with its wide receivers.

David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan during the 2010 Redskins season, he returned to the station as its blogger in March.


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