Robert Griffin III has always been early. He’s chronically ahead of schedule, an overachiever with a long habit of graduating ahead of his class, so it’s not surprising that he set a speed record in rehabilitating from knee surgery. Acceleration is so deeply ingrained in his competitive character that he seems to strain at his own cinch-waisted belt, as if it’s holding him back.
But the news that Griffin has been medically cleared to work out in training camp is double-edged for Coach Mike Shanahan and the Washington Redskins. On the one hand, it’s relieving to know that he has healed and is as keen and pacey as ever with that high-hurdling energy. On the other hand, it’s nervous-making because Griffin simply doesn’t know how to take anything slow.
Griffin is the brightest and most valuable young talent the Redskins have had since Sam Baugh’s record-setting rookie year in 1937. Baugh played until 1952, and you’d like to think Griffin’s career would last even half as long. But if that’s to be the case, the people managing Griffin will have to restrain him because all that shattering speed also means he’s breakable. He has a hard time curbing himself. Shanahan knows that now, knows his customer better.
“That’s a learning experience,” Shanahan said. “Rookies want to play. But they better be honest with you because if they’re not, it could be a guy’s career.”
The two men shared the responsibility for the wrong-headed decision to stay on the field in the playoffs last season, resulting in two torn ligaments. Shanahan overlooked the signs that Griffin’s knee was seriously compromised, maybe because he’s had a lot of quarterbacks who gimped on the field, including John Elway, who spent much of his career with the Denver Broncos on a bad ACL. But Griffin didn’t help Shanahan by not reporting his symptoms, insisting he was okay when he was not.
“You get to know him better,” Shanahan said. “I think Robert will tell you he’ll be more honest with me.”
Still, Shanahan sounds more cautious than elated about Griffin’s presence at camp. He will restrict Griffin to seven-on-seven drills because he doesn’t want to worry about offensive or defensive linemen rolling into that leg and he isn’t convinced that Griffin has fully regained his strength. There may be days when Griffin doesn’t practice at all, he says. He wants to see how Griffin does when he plants and how stiff that leg is after some real work.
“I can’t see a knee,” Shanahan said. “I can’t evaluate a knee. When the doctors approve a guy, we always assume he’s full go. But we have to put him through some work, put him through some drills. As we see what he can do, we will give him more to do. What you want to do is put him through football-related drills and let him get his arm strength back, his leg strength back. One day he might be sore, and then you’ll want to give him some rest. So I don’t know what the process is going to be. I’m not going to put him to work too quick.”
That Griffin needs a strong, restraining hand becomes obvious when you review his competitive pattern. He raced through high school like he was checking off boxes in a questionnaire. He was president of his class in Copperas Cove, Tex., and graduated early even as he was playing football and setting records as the top-ranked prep hurdler in the country in the 400 and 110 meters.
He continued this streaking “is-it-a-bird-or-a-plane” acceleration at Baylor. He arrived there in the spring of 2008, enrolling a semester early so he could run track and get a head start on his academics. When he was still the equivalent of a high school senior, he qualified for the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials in the 400 hurdles and was named a collegiate all-American. He finished his undergraduate degree in just three years, stacking his classes and making the dean’s list twice, carrying a cumulative grade point average of 3.67, and had to be talked out of entering law school.
Griffin’s habit of going far beyond the ordinary won’t be cured by one traumatic injury or even two. It’s a compulsion. When he woke up from surgery and James Andrews told him he had repaired tears in both his ACL and LCL, Griffin wept. And then wiped his face and declared he would make camp and be ready by the season opener. “As soon as I finished a little cry festival, I put the date of the first week in my phone, and that was my goal since then,” he said.
Such surging ambition simply may not be able to confine itself. It must be tempting for Shanahan to take the tethers off and watch him go. For one thing, the fact that Griffin is such a fast healer takes much of the hurt out of his injury for everybody, all of the Redskins stakeholders who were so devastated and criticized when Griffin’s leg turned at that weird angle and he didn’t get up. It was surely one of the most agonized moments of Shanahan’s career.
“Any time somebody goes down, you don’t know what happens,” he said. “It’s always tough. What you hope is that he’s going to come back full speed.”
The best chance for Griffin to make a full, complete recovery is to take it easy, and if Griffin won’t slow down, Shanahan is determined to do it for him. That isn’t easy for a coach who has his own surging ambition and tendencies toward competitive excess, but Shanahan sounds genuinely conservative. He stresses that there is a huge difference among rehab, live drills and game speed. Griffin still has major recovery stages to go through. “We won’t put him in a team situation until we feel he’s ready to go,” Shanahan said.
Shanahan and Griffin were great collaborators last season, and until that awful final game, they obviously shared a terrific understanding and intuition with each other. But in the future, Shanahan will have to be better attuned to the extraordinary psychology of his quarterback, who appears to be a man with a magnificent need to use his talents up. You simply can’t take him at his word when he says “I’m fine” or when he says he has learned his lesson.
“As I know him better, it’s easier for me,” Shanahan says. “You get to know each other better every play, every practice, every year.”
For more from Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.