For Robert Griffin III, it’s time to show what he can do

Jason Reid
Columnist September 8, 2012

The training wheels that have helped Washington Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III are about to come off. Then we’ll find out how well Griffin has learned to ride.

Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan’s most important job is to prepare Griffin for his first NFL season. Although quarterbacks generally struggle as they transition from college to the sport’s highest level, coaches can help minimize growing pains. If Shanahan’s methodical plan for Griffin is working, we’ll know it.

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

The proof will come in the Heisman Trophy winner’s success, if only in spurts, while utilizing a much bigger portion of the playbook than the Redskins showed during preseason games. But if Griffin regularly appears overwhelmed in executing even the most mundane task under game pressure (relaying the correct play call from the coaching staff, getting the team in and out of the huddle promptly, etc.), then perhaps Shanahan should not have been quite so deliberate.

The good news for the Redskins and their fans: Nothing that occurs during Sunday’s opener in New Orleans will be cause for alarm. It’s simply too early to reach conclusions about Griffin. Conversely, if Griffin is beyond-his-years effective against the Saints, Redskins fans shouldn’t suddenly start making plans to watch the team in the Super Bowl (it’s also in New Orleans). Historically in the NFL, a quarterback’s performance at the outset of his career doesn’t necessarily provide an indicator of future success.

Just ask Ryan Leaf. The San Diego Chargers selected the former Washington State star second overall (the same spot in which the Redskins chose Griffin) during the 1998 draft. The top pick? Some guy named Peyton Manning. Before that draft, however, there was debate among NFL decision-makers about who was the better prospect.

The Leaf-Manning chatter intensified early during the ’98 season. Leaf led the Chargers to a 2-0 start, and the Indianapolis Colts, with Manning, lost their first two games. The Colts would actually start 0-4 as Manning threw 11 interceptions.

But before long, the truth became clear. Leaf couldn’t handle the face-of-the-franchise pressure that accompanies riches and fame. As it turned out, he also wasn’t very good at reading defenses. He played just four seasons and finished his career with 14 touchdown passes and 36 interceptions.

Meantime, Manning has been in the express lane to the Hall of Fame. Without question, Manning, who has joined the Denver Broncos after 14 years with the Colts, is among the greatest quarterbacks of his generation, a four-time league MVP and Super Bowl MVP.

Troy Aikman’s bust is already on display in Canton. And fortunately for Aikman, his opening performance wasn’t all the Hall of Fame voters considered.

The Dallas Cowboys used the top pick in the 1989 draft to pick Aikman. Owner Jerry Jones viewed Aikman as the cornerstone of his attempt to restore the luster to a once-admired franchise that had fallen on hard times (sound familiar?). Then Aikman went out and threw six interceptions in the Cowboys’ first three games. He lost all 11 games he started that season.

By Aikman’s fourth season, though, he and the Cowboys got it figured out. With Aikman guiding the offense, Dallas became the first team in NFL history to win three Super Bowls in a four-year span.

There’s only one way to tell whether the latest hot-shot rookie signal caller will be another Manning or Aikman or (gulp) Leaf.

“You just have to let them play,” former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs said in a telephone interview recently. “In the NFL, you find out quickly, real quickly, what you’ve got.

“It’s tough when you’ve got a young quarterback in there; you know they’re going to take some lumps. But from everything I’ve heard about Robert, what they’re doing with him and how hard I hear he works, I’m hearing the things you like to hear. . . . But you’ve got to give ’em a little time.”

Exactly. The moment will come when it’s appropriate to grade the pupil. Now, it’s about letting the first-year lesson plan, which so far seems solid, play out.

Some coaches prefer to have rookie quarterbacks, especially projected starters, play a lot in the preseason. There’s so much for new quarterbacks to learn regarding the complexities of NFL defenses (such as identifying coverages and blitzes), the thinking goes, that it only makes sense to put them in positions to gain experience immediately.

The Colts took a more-makes-sense approach with No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck, Manning’s replacement, who threw 66 passes in meaningless games. Griffin had just 31 attempts. Griffin’s workload was in line with how Shanahan would have handled an incumbent veteran starter.

Why? The answer, in part, lies in understanding the ultra-secretive Shanahan. He strives to reveal as little as possible. He wants to make it as difficult as possible for opponents to draw up game plans against the Redskins.

By nature, all NFL coaches are a tad clandestine in seeking to gain a competitive advantage, but none more than the guy who directs the Redskins. By calling relatively few passing plays, Shanahan and his son, Kyle, the Redskins’ offensive coordinator, have provided little insight (meaning hardly any game film) about their intentions for the season. Undoubtedly, the Colts also held back some of their playbook. All teams do.

But it made sense for Shanahan to keep the rest of league guessing as long as possible about what Griffin is capable of this season while also making sure Griffin, who didn’t run a pro-style offense in college, wasn’t overloaded in his introduction to the pros. Shanahan surely dedicated closed-field practice time to have Griffin work on the toughest stuff, which the Redskins are expected to roll out starting against the Saints.

On the other hand: Would Griffin be further along in mastering the whole playbook if he had more game reps on a wider array of plays? It’s all a matter of coaching preference, “and if there was just one right way to do it, all these coaches would do it the same way,” veteran wide receiver Santana Moss said.

“But it ain’t like that. When you been around in this league, you see what really matters is [whether or not] coaches understand their guys. . . . Coach Shanahan, everything he has done is to try to help Robert. To try to get him ready.”

Shanahan has taught Griffin all he can to this point. It’s time for Griffin to take his biggest test yet.

For Jason Reid’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.

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