John Keim is taking a position-by-position look at the Redskins’ roster entering training camp. So far, he’s reviewed linebackers, the defensive line, the offensive line, running back, cornerbacks, safeties and tight ends. Today, it’s the quarterbacks:
Returning starter: Robert Griffin III
Key backups: Kirk Cousins, Rex Grossman
The rest: Pat White
Decisions: The Redskins’ primary decision is when to let Griffin play, and then how much work he gets in the preseason. The Redskins won’t push it, but if he’s 100 percent and the doctors clear him, then they’ll proceed accordingly. He does need to practice as much as he can to make up for some lost time this spring. It’ll be interesting to see how the coaches handle him in preseason games considering they don’t show a whole lot of their offense anyway. He will need some game action, but how much? If Griffin’s health could be trusted — he’s coming off multiple ligament tears in his right knee, as you might have heard — a big question would be how many quarterbacks the Redskins need to carry. Mike Shanahan has gone with two a handful of times. Even though Griffin could be ready for the start of camp, opening the season with two quarterbacks would be a little risky given Griffin’s style of play. Otherwise, this rotation is set: Griffin is the starter, Cousins is the backup, Grossman is the No. 3 and White is hoping to impress some team. White did improve in the spring, but the starting point was rather low.
Burning questions: (1) Will the Redskins protect Griffin more this season? That, of course, means fewer zone-read runs. The Redskins’ offense could still be effective if Griffin runs less than the 120 times he did last season. As he improves as a passer, there will be less need for him to run (see below). Still, the zone read serves a purpose (and did buy him more time on passes compared with other throws). Griffin does not have to run it five times a game for it to work; once or twice does the trick. It just needs to be something defenses must worry about. The Redskins adapted to how defenses played the zone read in order to protect the quarterback (with more backside blockers, whether the fullback or tight end, pulling and taking care of the linebacker on Griffin’s side). The quarterback draw seemed to result in harder hits, as did scrambles. But Griffin needs to protect himself, too. That can be done by not cutting upfield as much (he did improve in this but some teams did a good job forcing these cuts) or by throwing the ball away or even by relying less on his legs and more on his arm (again, see below). Protecting Griffin is not just up to the coaches.
(2) Can they win with Kirk Cousins if Griffin has to miss multiple weeks? Even Cousins knows that one game does not a career make – defenses adjust over time. Cousins still has to show what he can do over a stretch of games, but he’s already proven he can win a game and can run Mike Shanahan’s traditional non-Griffin offense. The Redskins are blessed with two smart young quarterbacks who work hard. That gives Cousins a chance to learn from mistakes and grow and be a solid backup for now. At times he takes big chances with his passes, and that resulted in two picks vs. Atlanta in Week 5 last season. Cousins, who throws with a lot of trust in his receivers and shows impressive poise in the pocket, likely would throw more interceptions than Griffin, but the offense could still move. The coaches are confident in what he can do, especially after his impressive outing vs. Cleveland in Week 15.
(3) Why is Grossman still on the roster? Because if he’s your No.3 quarterback, you have excellent depth at the position. Was he the best starter? No. Would he be a quality No. 2? For some teams, yes. Grossman is a smart player who serves almost as a player-coach for both Griffin and Cousins. There’s value in that role. Like him or not, Grossman has big-game experience and understands this offense; no, he doesn’t run like Griffin but he can help him develop as a passer. And it goes back to Griffin’s health: If something happens to him or he suffers a setback this summer, would you rather have Grossman as the backup or White? There’s a considerable gap between Grossman and White. If you want to contend for a title and not have a big drop-off in a worst-case scenario, you take the best talent. Keep in mind, too, that because both Griffin and Cousins don’t have monster contracts, the Redskins can keep a slightly more expensive No. 3 passer. Despite all that, at some point it’s easy to see Shanahan opting just for two quarterbacks with a developmental one on the practice squad. But if Grossman makes the team, you’ll know why.
What to watch for: Griffin’s progress as a passer. One way Griffin can help limit the hits he takes is to continue growing as a passer. If they run him less it’ll be because he grows in this area and the offense gets chunk yards on more passes. There were definitely times last year when Griffin seemed not to throw the ball because he knew he could get seven or eight yards – maybe more – with his legs. At times he passed up open targets (especially by NFL standards) and possible big plays to run – and sometimes got hit hard at the end. But it wasn’t about being overly cautious: Griffin also showed a willingness to make throws into tight windows, especially when the situation dictated he must throw. That needs to happen a little more this season. It might sometimes result in another interception or two, but more big plays will result – and, more importantly, fewer hits on Griffin. Also, Griffin had to adapt to a completely different passing attack than what he had in college. Despite this he was still productive and poised and avoided huge mistakes. It’s rather impressive what he did given that he has plenty of room for growth. As Griffin matures in this offense and in reading defenses, he should be able to know how quickly he needs to get off his first, or second, option. It makes a difference. Griffin handled non-play-action passes well, throwing 13 of his 22 touchdowns (including the postseason) from this look, but the yards per attempt were much less than they were from any sort of play-action pass (teams more often than not drop seven in coverage vs. him; if they’re not fooled, it lessens yards after the catch). Griffin had a knack for avoiding big mistakes, in part because if a receiver wasn’t open he knew he could run. On third and longs that meant he could get positive yards without forcing a ball to a covered receiver and risking a turnover. But it also occurred because he had a knack for placing the ball where only the receiver had a good shot at the reception. How much sitting out the spring workouts hinders this development remains to be seen. There has to be an impact, but with Griffin we’ve quickly learned many things don’t apply to him.