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Redskins need Robert Griffin III’s head injury to have been a healthy scare

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Without Robert Griffin III, the Washington Redskins are basically the same guys who have made their fans shouting mad for years.

We were again reminded of Griffin’s importance after the Redskins were unable to overcome a series of wrong turns on offense and defense after their rookie leader suffered a concussion late in a Week 5 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. Griffin was cleared for non-contact drills in practice Wednesday, and unless he suffers a setback during ongoing testing for the remainder of the week, count on him playing Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings.

But whenever Griffin gets back in the game, he’ll have to start making better decisions to keep himself in it. Judging by his first comments since being injured, Griffin is beginning to understand change is in order.

Griffin acknowledged he shouldn’t have taken on Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon on a play that knocked him out of the game in the third quarter and left Redskins management shaken, too.

“It’s a learning lesson,” Griffin said. “I can’t do that to my team, to the fans or my family.”

Indicating he’s learning from a painful lesson, Griffin, with the defense converging on him during practice, threw away the ball on one play and imitated sliding on another (defensive players cannot hit quarterbacks when they slide feet first). The moves drew applause and cheers from Griffin’s teammates, who have encouraged him to think of his safety first.

“You don’t want to discourage Robert from being aggressive and doing the things that have made him a great player,” inside linebacker London Fletcher said. “You want him to use all his skills to help us. That’s why he’s here.

“He’s very smart for a young player; you don’t see him making the same mistakes over and over, and he’ll learn from this. But it’s also hard to change your nature. Robert is a play-maker. It comes down to walking that fine line.”

It’s the one between being aggressive and being reckless.

Beginning in the offseason, Griffin quickly earned his teammates’ respect by showing a willingness to sacrifice his body to win, “but you’ve got to pick and choose,” cornerback DeAngelo Hall said. “He knows that wasn’t the right time to do that. . . . But knowing when you’re back out there [in a game], trying to get that first down, that’s the test.”

Fortunately for Griffin, he’ll be able to work through the process without having to worry about proving himself. He’s the real deal. There’s no question about that.

“It’s not about being soft,” Griffin said. “Everybody knows I’m a tough guy.”

Trying to be too tough got him into this situation. Each time Griffin stretches for a few extra yards or takes on a defensive player when he could have stepped out of bounds, he risks suffering an injury that could further set back the struggling Redskins. Washington (2-3) is winless in its past eight home games. Coach Mike Shanahan is 4-14 at FedEx Field.

On defense, the secondary has performed even more poorly than we feared it would. The front seven hasn’t generated much of a pass rush.

Through the first quarter of the season, running back Alfred Morris was in lock-step with Griffin at the front of the rookie class. But the offensive line remains mired in the struggles that started after the Hogs left. Griffin’s passing has enabled the wide receiving corps to look much better than it has actually played (new No. 1 wideout Pierre Garcon was a no-show against Atlanta).

At this point, Griffin’s performance is one of few reasons for fans to remain interested and optimistic with 11 games to play, “and everybody in here [the locker room] understands what he means for us,” special teams standout Lorenzo Alexander said. “We’re definitely different with him because of the run-pass dynamic he gives us. As players, we understand injuries are going to happen. But with your quarterback, you definitely don’t want him taking that type of hit a lot.”

The NFL doesn’t, either. It only took Griffin four games to become a superstar. The last thing Commissioner Roger Goodell wants, with so much focus on the concussion issue, is for one of the new faces of the league to be part of the safety-of-the-sport debate.

“My brain, my head, my future outside of football . . . my life is more important than trying to get that touchdown on third-and-4 on the goal line,” Griffin said.

And although it may seem callous, his health has long-term implications for the franchise. The Redskins gambled in trading four high-round picks for Griffin. They won’t receive an adequate return on their investment unless Griffin plays — and helps them win — for a long time.

“What happens to me affects a lot of people,” Griffin said. “Hey, if I can run out of bounds, run out of bounds. If I can slide, just slide.”

Proof of real progress won’t occur until Griffin is presented with similar in-game situations and chooses correctly. But he can still be aggressive while making the right risk-reward decisions. It’s just a matter of understanding that losing a battle is okay if it allows you to continue fighting the war.

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

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