Reporting David Elfin
Much about the Redskins’ offense is the same as it was during the dreary 2011 season. The coaches on that side of the ball and the entire line that began the season before injuries hit return intact. So do the top three rushers and three of the four leaders in catches.
Of course, coach Mike Shanahan and everyone else who roots for Washington expects that replacing the demoted Rex Grossman with rookie Robert Griffin III, the Heisman Trophy winner whom the Redskins traded up to draft second overall, will make a huge difference. That remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Griffin, if healthy, will be the quarterback.
However, that still leaves coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s offense with plenty of questions heading into Thursday’s opening of training camp. Will Chris Cooley bounce back from an injury-ruined 2011 season to be a big factor again? Will Cooley’s fellow tight end, Fred Davis, and left tackle Trent Williams avoid year-long suspensions by staying away from drugs? Will Williams fulfill the potential that made him the fourth overall selection in the 2010 draft and will Jammal Brown’s newfound devotion to yoga and pilates make the right tackle resemble the Pro Bowl player he was in New Orleans?
And here are three more pressing concerns for the offense:
1. Who’s the No. 1 back from among Tim Hightower, Roy Helu and Evan Royster, all of whom owned the job at times in 2011?
Helu was the most productive last season, leading Washington in rushing and ranking third in catches. However, he needs to prove he can stay healthy after being banged up in December and in the spring . His best role might be as a change-of-pace or third-down back. Royster flashed late last season when Helu was ailing but lacks his fellow 2011 rookie’s speed.
The hunch is that the 26-year-old Hightower, a former Arizona regular who was the starter before tearing his left ACL in Week 7, will regain the job — if he shows that his knee is sound — because of his all-around steadiness which includes superior pass protection ability.
2. Can Santana Moss hold off the substantially younger free agent signee Josh Morgan and 2011 rookie Leonard Hankerson to start at receiver for an eighth straight season?
Prior to spring workouts, Moss seemed to be in serious jeopardy of being cut with his 33rd birthday approaching after a subpar 2011 season, his $4.3 million salary cap hit, the guaranteed $7.5 million given to Morgan to leave the 49ers, and the potential that third-round draft pick Hankerson briefly showed before a season-ending hip injury last November.
However, Moss dropped about 15 pounds and enjoyed a fine spring. Meanwhile, Morgan wasn’t able to go full-speed because of the broken ankle that ended his 2011 season in Week 5 and Hankerson didn’t participate in any team drills. So Moss should begin camp as the starter opposite expensive free agent pickup Pierre Garcon. That means that Morgan and Hankerson should have to beat out Moss rather than the other way around. It could happen, but the odds have certainly decreased.
3. How ready will Griffin be as a rookie?
Griffin was so impressive throughout the draft process that not only did Washington trade three first-round choices and a second-rounder to St. Louis in March for the right to move up four spots to select him second overall, but he was named the starter before the veterans even reported in mid-May.
So missing two days of last week’s rookie minicamp because his contract hadn’t been signed yet should be just a bump in the road for a player who seems to have it all: excellent leadership, a serious work ethic, a winning personality, a strong arm and world-class speed.
However, the 22-year-old Texan is still an NFL neophyte being counted on to revive a team that was just 15-33 the past three years and has won just two playoff games since he was in pre-school. Playing his first two games on the road in noisy domes won’t help nor will having five of the final seven games against tough NFC East foes and the fierce Baltimore Ravens defense.
Still, the Redskins are ahead of the battle with the inexperienced Griffin rather than the turnover-riddled Grossman at quarterback. They just need the kid to stay upright and learn as he goes while they prepare to contend in 2013 and beyond.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin