Interview with Robert Griffin III: Trying season has helped fuel Redskins quarterback

The NFL released its full schedule of games, and Washington will open the year at Houston. The Post Sports Live crew examines what lies ahead for the Redskins and their new coach. (Tom LeGro/The Washington Post)

After a nightmare of a sophomore NFL campaign he describes as “a whole journey of second-guessing and wondering,” Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III says he has rediscovered his identity.

The recovery required painful reflections on a 3-13 season that featured a trying rehabilitation, a failed attempt to recapture the magic of his rookie season, a bitter divorce between he, the organization and coach Mike Shanahan. Griffin went through that mental detox during a getaway immediately following the season. The hiring of Jay Gruden as head coach, the promotion of Sean McVay to offensive coordinator and lengthy philosophical talks with each sparked optimism.

The healing continued during a working retreat to Arizona with a collection of his pass-catchers and a renewed relationship with quarterback guru Terry Shea, who helped him correct fundamentals that had deteriorated during a 2012 offseason lost to the recovery of reconstructive knee surgery.

Earlier this month, Washington’s offseason program began, affording Griffin and his teammates the chance to begin working with Gruden and his staff in earnest. The on-field work doesn’t begin until Tuesday, but Griffin already finds himself brimming with optimism.

Entering just his third season, he feels like a grizzled veteran. Although he would have preferred last season’s woes never happened, Griffin says the reflection on all that took place — on and off the field — has been beneficial.

“All of those struggles — being injured, working my way back, losing games, having people talk bad about me, talk bad about my family, which is very dear to me — it all let me know who I am,” Griffin said in an interview with The Post on Thursday — his first extensive interview with a reporter since the season ended. “It’s shown me who I am, and it’s shown me who I’m not. It shows me that the little voice in the back of your head — that voice — it is your self-conscience. It’s not telling me that I know everything, or you know everything, but I know what makes me a great quarterback, and in my mind, those are the things that I found out in these first two years. . . . By enduring that, it’s put us in a better place. It’s put me in a better place this upcoming season, and the foreseeable future.”

Lessons from tough season

Griffin in 2012 orchestrated a storybook rookie year, setting league passing and rushing records and leading the Redskins to a 10-6 NFC East championship campaign. But his star diminished greatly in 2013. Torn ligaments in his right knee during a playoff loss to Seattle began the demise of his relationship with Mike and Kyle Shanahan and proved a setback to Griffin as a player. He couldn’t improve his skills while rehabbing and didn’t practice fully until the week leading up to the 2013 season. Griffin spent the offseason and much of the season trying to figure out what kind of quarterback he needed to morph into.

Griffin admits his mechanics changed — some because of the lack of offseason work, and some because he said coaches instructed him to modify his base — but he strongly disagreed with the notion that he couldn’t read defenses.

“That’s completely false. . . . To me, there was no difference in what defenses did to us my rookie year and my sophomore year. It was about what we were doing,” Griffin said. “There are going to be great teams. There are going to be great defenses that you face. But at the end of the day, you face the same caliber of defenses every year and it’s about how you counteract on offense, and in my opinion, we didn’t do a good job of counteracting anything in my opinion. We weren’t a well-oiled machine. We were not clicking on all cylinders like we were in ’12. That’s what we have to get back to.

“But when it comes to reading defenses, if I could read defenses my rookie year, I’m pretty sure I could read defenses last year. It had nothing to do with that . . . I’ve never heard a guy be called a cerebral quarterback and then the next year, he’s not a cerebral quarterback. I get a chuckle out of that.”

After clearing his head from the 3-13 season, Griffin outlined his four main priorities for the coming year.

“The number one thing to do on the checklist was ‘Get back to playing Robert Griffin III-type football with a Robert Griffin III-type base, being explosive when I throw the ball,’ ” he said.

The other three: spend as much time as possible working with his teammates to sharpen chemistry, improve his knowledge of the game, and win.

Griffin and Shea have begun to correct flaws in mechanics, and the quarterback has spent extensive time with teammates — even meeting with them at a private facility this week (a “dead week,” in which they aren’t allowed to train at Redskins Park because of league rules that guard against extending the boundaries of offseason practice limitations) to throw with receivers.

McVay says Griffin still has some technique elements to refine based on the requirements of the three-step and five-step drops, working under center and also sharpening decision-making. But based on what he has seen thus far, McVay believes Griffin can achieve the last two items on his checklist as well.

“I think you’re seeing a guy that’s completely maturing to the guy that’s a total team leader,” the offensive coordinator said. “He’s doing everything physically, leading the workouts, coaching guys up on some football-related stuff when [coaches] aren’t allowed to be with them on the field. He’s really doing a nice job of absorbing all the material that Coach Gruden and myself have thrown at him before we had a break last week.”

McVay says Griffin will have more freedom under Gruden to change plays at the line, which also excites the quarterback.

From a personal standpoint, Griffin — echoing the sentiments of teammates — also feels a sense of freedom with Gruden at the helm — and because of the offseason moves.

“It is a new attitude. We get to have a fresh start. We’re not starting over. But it is a fresh start.” Griffin said, “We need to find our identity, and Jay is going to let us decide. So, that’s up to me, it’s up to Trent Williams, Brian Orakpo, Jason Hatcher, Ryan Kerrigan — all these guys around here. That’s what we have to decide, and I think that’s why everyone else is a lot more free around here, because we feel great things are coming.”

Ready to turn back around

It could take some time for the team to find its identity, Griffin acknowledges. Training camp still is three months away.

But the quarterback said he has rediscovered his own identity and knows what it should resemble this coming season.

“As a quarterback, my identity is I am the leader of this team, I am the guy that everybody looks to when things are going bad,” Griffin said. “. . . I am the guy that delivers. I am the guy that everyone on the team offense, defense, special teams — when it’s crunch time, they’re not looking at Trent Williams, they’re not looking at Alfred Morris. They’re looking at Robert Griffin III and that is an identity and position I accept. You have to believe in yourself. If you don’t believe, nobody else will, and that’s what I do for the guys around me, for my family. I give them that belief that at the end of the day, things are going to work out, and I don’t think their belief is misplaced, even with us being 3-13 last year. We will be a better football team this year. That is my identity.”

Griffin draws motivation from two strong factors. Chiefly, he wants to return the Redskins to their winning ways. And, he wants to use his success and platform to begin changing lives in the D.C. area.

Thus far, Griffin has lent charitable aid to other organizations — some belonging to his teammates — but for the most part has not taken significant action of his own. He did donate $100,000 to his high school (Copperas Cove, Tex.) last year. But he now feels the urge to do more.

This summer he will begin holding his own football camp for the District’s youth, while helping with a second camp as well. He also soon will launch a charity he will call the “Family of 3 Initiative,” which involves him adopting three area families a year and sowing into their lives.

He sees those acts — similar to his donation to his high school — as a way to give back to those who support him, even during his own trying times.

“All of those struggles along the line, like I said, have shown me know who I am, and if anything, the things I’ll have going on this offseason: the two camps and ‘The Family of 3 Initiative,’ it’s my way of saying thank you to the community,” Griffin said. “Even though there might be people in the community who have started to reject me, this is a thank-you for standing by us in this hard year. This is a thank-you for those who did stand by us, because if anything, you’re making us stronger. These trials and tribulations are things God told us we’re going to go through. It’s about how you respond to it that makes you who you are. That’s why I’m in a much better place.”

Mike Jones covers the Washington Redskins for The Washington Post. When not writing about a Redskins development of some kind – which is rare – he can be found screaming and cheering at one of his kids’ softball, baseball, soccer or basketball games.
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