We knew earlier in the week that Rex Grossman was a confident quarterback, when he said he expected the Washington Redskins to win the NFC East this season. On Friday night, in Washington's 16-7 preseason victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Grossman played like a confident quarterback. He looked cool and in control, playing the first half behind a surprisingly sound offensive line and going 19-for-26 for 207 yards and a touchdown.
Now, the first reaction will be to say Grossman has seized the lead over John Beck, who missed the game with a groin injury, in the competition for the Redskins' starting quarterback job. But I'm not sure it's that simple. The Redskins' coaches believe Grossman can run their offense as well as, if not better than, Donovan McNabb did in 2010. They believe he's as competent as can be, and nothing he did Friday night showed them anything they didn't already know about him. The reason this is a competition at all is that Mike Shanahan and Kyle Shanahan believe Beck has more upside and athleticism. They want to see how Beck handles himself against hostile competition, under the bright lights in a situation with something (i.e., the starting quarterback job) on the line. The groin injury robbed them of that chance this week, and they'll hope they can get him in there next week so the competition can begin for real.
What Grossman's performance did Friday was maybe allow the Shanahans to sleep a little more easily. What they saw reinforced what they thought things would look like if they ended up going with Grossman. But as far as the Grossman-Beck competition is concerned, I'm not sure it's really started yet.
A few more observations from Washington's surprisingly impressive effort in its first preseason game:
1. Ryan Kerrigan can contribute right away. The first-round draft pick is still getting up to speed, as a leg injury cost him several early training camp practices. And he will need to continue to work on his coverages and get used to playing on two feet as a linebacker rather than out of the three-point stance in which he played as a defensive end at Purdue. But Kerrigan can rush a passer. He showed that several times, making his way swiftly into the backfield from the side opposite Brian Orakpo, and getting hits on Steelers running backs and quarterbacks. He might not be a fully finished NFL product by Week 1, but the Redskins can start him at outside linebacker if they want to and just send him after quarterbacks all night, and they'll get plenty of value out of that.
2. Tim Hightower will be the starting running back as long as he holds on to the football. Mike Shanahan thought he got a steal when he acquired Hightower in a trade with Arizona during training camp's first week. You saw Hightower look good running the ball, but what really jumps out to Shanahan is the help Hightower can provide in the passing game -- as a receiver and as a blocker. Ryan Torain will still get a long look once he gets back from his hand injury, but Hightower is the clear leader to be the starting running back in Week 1.
3. Lots of Evan Royster. Once Hightower was out of the game, the rookie running back who got the vast majority of touches was Royster, not Roy Helu. Helu didn't get a carry until there were about eight minutes left in the third quarter, and the work he got at that point seemed to be aimed at getting a breather for Royster, who came right back in. As Rich Campbell, the fine Redskins beat writer for the Washington Times, pointed out on Twitter, Shanahan likes to give running backs "whole games" to allow them to establish rhythm before he evaluates them. Did the same thing, Campbell says, last season with Willie Parker and Larry Johnson. By that logic, we should expect to see a preseason game at some point in which Helu gets a ton of carries. Helu looked explosive in the fourth-quarter action he saw, and I'm sure the Redskins are eager to take a longer look at him.
4. Trouble in the secondary? There were a couple of first-half plays on which Steelers receivers got well past Redskins cornerbacks and would have had big plays if the passes hadn't been overthrown. Some of the secondary problems could have to do with communication issues, since both starting safeties were out with injuries. But newcomer Josh Wilson bears watching at corner as the preseason goes along.
5. Mixed results on the defensive line. I thought there were times when it got pushed around, but the defensive line had its moments. Kerrigan's tackle of Mewelde Moore on that third-and-2 probably wouldn't have happened if new nose tackle Barry Cofield hadn't gotten quick penetration and held his spot. Moore ran right into Cofield a split-second before Kerrigan grabbed him. Rookie Jarvis Jenkins also was able to produce some pressure, Stephen Bowen sacked Byron Leftwich, and there were plenty of early plays on which the line cleared room for a fired-up London Fletcher to get into the backfield and make plays.
6. Veteran receivers. Whoever the quarterback is, he will be happy to have Santana Moss and Jabar Gaffney, two professional, veteran route-runners. The young receivers? Meh. Niles Paul made a nice play. Aldrick Robinson kept dropping the ball on kick returns. And Leonard Hankerson had a bad drop, which matters only because that's the thing about him that everybody's watching. The drops.
7. A good night for Graham Gano. While the quarterback competition might not have begun yet, the kicker competition might be over. Newcomer Shayne Graham missed badly from 29 and 49 yards. Gano made his three field goals from 32, 34 and 45. Maybe they brought in Graham just to pressure Gano into doing better, but he didn't exert much pressure Friday, and Gano looked fantastic.
All in all, if you hadn't been following any of the preseason coverage, you'd have tuned in Friday night and thought the Redskins looked pretty sharp. Keep in mind: This is a rebuilding team. So good signs from Friday night can be good signs for the future even if they don't end up portending anything great for 2011. As for 2011 ... One thing the Redskins almost certainly will be able to do is beat outside expectations. Remains to be seen, of course, whether they have any chance of living up to Grossman's.