As Robert Griffin III heals, Redskins face rebuilding of offense

The Post Sports Live crew discusses whether Robert Griffin III is overexposed nationally with appearances at the White House correspondents’ dinner after parties, ESPYs and movie premieres. (Post Sports Live)
Jason Reid
Columnist May 19, 2013

The biggest news about the Washington Redskins actually doesn’t involve quarterback Robert Griffin III’s reconstructed right knee. It’s still way too early to tell when Griffin will be ready to play — the Redskins are waiting to find out just like everyone else. What is interesting are the changes on offense the team is expected to make to accommodate Griffin.

Coach Mike Shanahan isn’t one to reveal what he ate for breakfast, let alone pull back the curtain on his plans for the Redskins. Still, we know changes are likely because Griffin is tired of being banged around like a pinata in the spectacularly successful — but highly risky — college option-style offense primarily responsible for Washington winning its second NFC East title in the past 21 years.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

Griffin hinted at his frustration in a text to an ESPN host in March, writing that “all parties involved know their responsibilities” in the situation that resulted in his second major knee injury. Redskins observers spent weeks speculating about what Griffin meant. At the highest levels of Washington’s football operation, there was no need to guess: Griffin wasn’t happy about being exposed often on designed running plays. During Washington’s draft party for fans last month at FedEx Field, Griffin dropped another clue about potential alterations to come, telling the crowd, “we’re working on other things in our offense, so we can open up everything.”

As the Redskins begin organized training activities Monday at Redskins Park, they’re at a crossroads on offense. Shanahan and his son, Kyle, Washington’s sharp play-caller, revamped their strategy before last season to capitalize on Griffin’s smarts and arm strength as much as his remarkable athleticism. By any criteria, their approach worked: the electrifying Griffin captivated the league and was selected the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year.

Now, it seems that the Shanahans, if they want to maintain a good working relationship with Griffin, must modify an offense that was one of the game’s best. Messing with something that worked so well, even only a little, could set back a franchise that finally has regained some momentum. Does that mean the Shanahans will tear out all of the zone-read pages from Washington’s playbook? Probably not. But Griffin isn’t interested in being the NFL’s next Michael Vick. He’s determined to roll like Aaron Rodgers.

Griffin believes he’s more than capable of thriving in a traditional pro-style offense. He’d point to his 65.6 completion percentage as proof of his ability to dissect any defense. He’d remind you that no first-year quarterback in NFL history was better at both making wise decisions with the football (Griffin had only seven turnovers) and producing big plays (27 total touchdowns). Griffin doesn’t view himself as a great running quarterback — he believes he’s a great quarterback who’s also a star runner.

Often in interviews, when reporters would attempt to draw comparisons between Griffin and Philadelphia’s Vick, Griffin steered the conversation toward Green Bay’s Rodgers. For most of Vick’s career, his first instinct was to bolt from the pocket. On Rodgers’s best day, he couldn’t keep pace with Vick in a foot race. But Rodgers, Griffin mentioned several times, is a good athlete. Rodgers remains in the pocket to give passing plays the best chance to succeed. Griffin possesses the same pass-first mentality.

The Shanahans made the right move, however, in constructing an offense that utilized all of Griffin’s skills. Opponents weren’t prepared for how well Griffin both passed and ran, and the threat of Griffin’s speed was the foundation of the offense.

Griffin was running back Alfred Morris’s best blocker. Defensive linemen and linebackers were so concerned about Griffin, Morris set a franchise single-season rushing record. For receivers, big holes opened in the secondary because over-anxious safeties rushed in when they should have stayed back. Griffin’s ability to elude the pass rush provided relief for Washington’s offensive line, which never looked better.

Thanks to Griffin, the whole organization received an extreme makeover. In their previous 19 seasons, the Redskins had only five winning records. They missed the playoffs 16 times. Last season, with Griffin bringing Kyle’s vision to life, the Redskins rocketed back to relevancy.

And here’s the key question: Do the Redskins even have the personnel to run a productive conventional offense?

Morris is a sixth-round success story. The young man runs hard. I’ll give him that. There’s no way, though, Morris would have rushed for more than 1,600 yards without Griffin being on the move so much.

After his foot healed, wide receiver Pierre Garcon was a force during Washington’s season-closing, seven-game winning streak. Throughout his career, Garcon has been a big-play guy. The rest of the receiving corps needs as much elbow room as possible in the secondary. That’s what Griffin’s running creates.

And then there’s the offensive line.

Griffin’s mobility masked the unit’s deficiencies in pass protection. Washington didn’t make any big moves along the line during free agency. During the draft, Shanahan focused on the defensive backfield. It’s true that Griffin, in a more conventional offense, wouldn’t have to run as much by design — he’d have to run for safety.

Kyle didn’t receive nearly enough credit for taking the framework of his father’s offense, incorporating other elements rarely used in the NFL and blending it all together smoothly. It wasn’t easy. Keeping Griffin happy could prove to be even harder.

For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.

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