Jason Reid
Jason Reid
Columnist

Redskins can only protect Robert Griffin III so much; QB must be smarter, safer on field

John McDonnell/The Washington Post - The Redskins can do some things to help protect Robert Griffin III (10), but ultimately it’s on his shoulders to be smarter and safer on the field.

It was hardly stop-the-presses news this week that James Andrews will re-evaluate Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III again before the regular season begins. Andrews performed knee surgery on Griffin in January and cleared him to participate in training camp. In Griffin’s situation, follow-up examinations are routine.

Unless Andrews detects a new problem with Griffin’s twice-reconstructed right knee, Griffin should start in Week 1 against Philadelphia. Even if the Redskins held out Griffin in an effort to protect him longer, football wouldn’t suddenly become safer in Weeks 2, 3, 4 or whenever he got back in the game. At some point, the bubble wrap must be removed.

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But once Griffin has a green light, he must work with Coach Mike Shanahan — and offensive play-caller Kyle Shanahan — to ensure that the road doesn’t get bumpy again. All Andrews can do is determine whether Griffin’s knee is structurally sound. If fans have anxiety about Griffin’s return, they should direct it toward the Redskins’ zone-read offense.

Griffin had the greatest season statistically for a rookie quarterback in NFL history, and Washington’s college option-style offense played a big part in his success. Kyle Shanahan designed an offense to capitalize on Griffin’s smarts and arm strength as much as his speed (no other NFL quarterbacks are Olympic-class hurdlers).

The Redskins led the league in rushing, Griffin set a rookie rushing mark for quarterbacks and the mere threat of Griffin running opened holes in the secondary for receivers and running lanes for 1,600-yard rusher Alfred Morris. Only one problem: Griffin occasionally got crushed.

Although Kyle Shanahan called fewer designed runs, especially quarterback-draw plays, as the season progressed, the Redskins won’t completely eliminate their 50 Series — the term for their zone-read package — from the offense. Griffin’s ability to turn a seemingly routine run into a signature play (remember his 76-yard touchdown against Minnesota?) strikes fear in opponents. The zone read, however, must evolve — especially Griffin’s responsibilities in it.

Kyle is extremely sharp. No one has to tell him it would be foolish for Griffin, in his first season after surgery, to run as much as he did at the outset of the 2012 season. And the Redskins shouldn’t need Griffin to be on the move often.

Last season, the Redskins unveiled a new approach. They wanted to keep opponents guessing. Mission accomplished. Knowing Kyle, he spent the offseason devising new wrinkles to counter the changes defensive coordinators are planning to make against the Redskins. One adjustment could be to rely less on the zone read.

Griffin improved as a pocket passer during his rookie season. He’s eager to prove he could be second to none at his position without all the smoke and mirrors. Robert Griffin Jr. is confident his son could get it done. The elder Griffin continues to wage a media campaign in an attempt to persuade the Redskins to pass more and run less.

Increasing Griffin’s role as a decoy in the zone read could make a difference. Griffin would take fewer hits if he faked running and handed off. Privately, the Redskins believe Morris’s breakout rookie season was only the beginning of something really big. For the Redskins, the circumstances are right to find out if they’re correct.

The receiving corps also has a role in reducing Griffin’s exposure. Last season, the passing game never reached its potential because of injuries and inexperience. Wide receiver Pierre Garcon and tight end Fred Davis are back and in good form. Wideouts Josh Morgan and Leonard Hankerson know where they’re doing. It appears Kyle Shanahan has so many good options from which to choose, Griffin won’t have as much heavy lifting to do.

Griffin, though, still has a big role to play in protecting himself. Griffin seemed to think last year those Superman socks he’s fond of wearing actually made him a man of steel. He took too many chances. After taking on a linebacker and suffering a concussion in Week 5 against Atlanta, Griffin said he needed to play it safer. Unfortunately for Griffin and the Redskins, Griffin didn’t listen to his own advice.

Instead of running out of bounds on a scramble in Week 14 against Baltimore, Griffin cut back into the middle of the field and gained more yards. He also got clobbered by Ravens defensive lineman Haloti Ngata and suffered his initial knee injury, which became worse in the playoffs. In fact, the hardest hits Griffin absorbed occurred on scrambles.

Griffin isn’t naive. He has to share in the responsibility for what happens to him. He can’t expect the Shanahans to take all the bullets, because they don’t deserve them. Perhaps Griffin truly gets that now.

“I learned a lot of lessons last year. I learned how to protect myself,” Griffin said after practice Wednesday at Redskins Park. “I’m going to protect myself. I’ll do a better job of that. And the coaches are going to help me out there as well.”

That’s the way it has to be. Keeping Griffin on the field will take a collaborative effort – and there’s nothing more important for the Redskins.

For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.

 
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