LANDOVER, Md.—The tens of thousands of spectators who avoided Thursday night’s federally mandated preseason exercise in NFL futility at FedEx Field were on to something.

Ten minutes before Washington kicked off its 23–13 exhibition loss to Cincinnati, there were approximately 2,000 butts in the seats. By halftime, the lower bowl was roughly one-third full, and a few of the faithful went home with some hope.

They saw another flash from Dwayne Haskins. The rookie quarterback earned double points for reading a Bengals blitz, then hanging in long enough to shrug off a hit from Germaine Pratt and connect with Robert Davis on a 55-yard touchdown pass late in the first half.

They witnessed Montae Nicholson rambling 96 yards for a score with a pass tipped by Daron Payne on the game’s first possession. And they saw Case Keenum demonstrate a grasp of Jay Gruden’s offense—his third different scheme in three years—even if his drives all fizzled and produced no points.

Aside from those headlines, the not-so-well-kept secret is that there’s plenty of work to do.

Before Nicholson’s heroics, Washington was flagged for four defensive penalties on the Bengals’ first possession. Granted, a couple of them were questionable calls, and Josh Norman received an unsportsmanlike conduct call for touching an official as he protested one of them.

Another completely unnecessary offensive interference call on Washington’s Jeremy Sprinkle negated a long fourth-down connection between Haskins and a wide-open Steven Sims.

Then there was the appalling lack of effort from Washington’s defense on the Bengals’ first-half touchdown drive. A routine pass from rookie quarterback Ryan Finley to fifth-string tight end Mason Schreck turned into an 18-yard gain when Greg Stroman dived blindly at Schreck’s feet and Dominique Rodgers–Cromartie didn’t bother to extend his arms.

Kicker Dustin Hopkins didn’t exactly distinguish himself, either. He missed the point-after kick after Nicholson’s return, and his 50-yard field goal attempt barely cleared snapper Nick Sundberg’s butt level, let alone the crossbar.

It’s important to remember that while the preseason doesn’t count, it does matter. And as it prepares for a season of low external expectations, Gruden’s club hasn’t done much to change anyone’s opinion.

While Haskins’ every move will be scrutinized in his crash course into the intricacies of the pro game, his development is hardly the team’s biggest preseason concern. While unofficial, it’s becoming clearer that Keenum is likely to start the season opener Sept. 12 at Philadelphia—and will keep the job unless he’s injured or Haskins claims it.

No, this team’s overwhelming worry is the left side of its offensive line. Seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams, the club’s most important player by miles, is holding out over a reportedly bitter and escalating rift with the training staff over their handling of a growth on his head. The question seems to be not if and when Williams will report, but whether Bruce Allen will trade him.

Without Williams, Gruden is hoping that veteran Donald Penn—a former Pro Bowler who was unemployed when camp began—or unproven Geron Christian can protect the quarterback’s blind side without a dramatic dropoff. Ereck Flowers, a high-profile flameout at tackle with the New York Giants, is trying to earn the left guard spot.

Early returns are not encouraging. Penn and Flowers whiffed on a simple first-quarter stunt by the Bengals, and Keenum paid the price when he was flattened by Cincinnati’s Sam Hubbard on an incompletion.

And aside from a 26-yard sprint by Adrian Peterson around the left side, Washington managed just 13 yards on 11 rushing attempts in the first half, when the first-team blockers were in the game.

Gruden is fortunate to have a capable veteran in Keenum to hold down the fort until Haskins is ready. And his defense can be solid as long as Payne and Jonathan Allen stay healthy up front.

But if Washington can’t protect its quarterback—whomever it is—this figures to be a long season. No matter how many fans show up to see it.

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Steve DeShazo: 374-5443 sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

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