Robert Griffin III is a rookie when it comes to taking care of himself

The Post Sports Live crew debates whether the Redskins historically-poor defense or Robert Griffin III's level of play is the bigger concern for the team. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)
Jason Reid
Columnist September 25, 2013

The most dynamic first-year passer in NFL history has had to start all over. Essentially, Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is in the process of repeating his rookie season while he struggles to truly protect himself on a football field for the first time.

Instead of learning to read defenses and trying to prove he belongs (he has that part down already), Griffin has been busy focusing on when to slide, step out of bounds and throw away the ball. Safety-first moves don’t come naturally to Griffin — his instinct is to compete until the whistle — and his growing pains have been a real downer for the 0-3 Redskins.

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

Reconstructive knee surgery in January isn’t what is primarily slowing down Griffin; changing his game is. Doing what’s familiar is easier than attempting something new. But Griffin’s old approach wasn’t sustainable; the scars on his twice surgically repaired right knee prove that.

The Redskins traded four high-round draft picks for Griffin because they envisioned he would be a longtime successful artist, not a one-hit wonder. They need him to get it figured out while he plays smarter, regain his lost swagger and get them back in the game quickly.

For quarterbacks, there’s no future in regularly challenging would-be tacklers. Even in the NFL’s violent workplace, many elite quarterbacks have remained effective well into their 30s by playing it safe whenever possible. The NFL’s biggest stars — Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees — know when to go down. In a quarterback league, every team needs one who can remain upright.

Unlike last season, when Griffin vowed to play smarter but forgot those promises shortly after kickoff, he’s finally serious about his safety. It’s obvious in every awkward movement Griffin has made during the Redskins’ awful start.

Redskins people say privately that the I’m-in-charge-here guy from last season has been replaced by a player who clearly is thinking too much instead of just letting it flow, which is what Griffin did so well while winning the Heisman Trophy in college and being selected the NFL offensive rookie of the year last season. The evidence is on film.

During Sunday’s loss to the Detroit Lions, Griffin unwittingly provided an instructional video on the wrong way for quarterbacks to avert being hit. On the first play of the third quarter, Griffin sprinted toward the sideline on a zone-read option run when it appeared he could have cut back inside for a big gain.

With Lions strong safety Glover Quin in pursuit, however, Griffin hurriedly plopped down and performed one of the strangest get-out-of-bounds slides you’ll ever see. Think of a Little Leaguer going feet first into second base and coming up a foot or so short, but this herky-jerky motion was coming from one of the league’s most graceful players. And Griffin’s next slide made his first look like a textbook maneuver.

Early in the fourth, Griffin scrambled up the middle for 21 yards to Detroit’s 29-yard line. The defense converged on him, so Griffin made the right call and headed for the ground, except he dove headfirst, fumbled before being touched and the Lions recovered.

Griffin’s family members, teammates and Redskins coaches have stayed on him about being ready to give himself up much quicker than he had in the past. It seems Griffin has so many voices in his head, he can’t execute a basic slide without suspense.

You don’t have to be Rickey Henderson to know Griffin, who rarely slid while in college at Baylor, must improve in that area. Sliding reps have become part of his practice routine.

Griffin is so talented and he works so hard, he never envisioned he could be tripped up by something seemingly so easy, some in the organization say. In the preseason, Griffin pushed Coach Mike Shanahan to name him as the starter as soon as possible because he believed he would return better than ever. But there are different levels of being all-in for Week 1.

Some critics contend Griffin’s passing mechanics are messed up because he cannot push off on his right leg, but he looked just fine on a 29-yard strike to Aldrick Robinson in the second quarter against the Lions. Midway through the fourth quarter, Griffin made another sharp throw on what would have been a go-ahead, 57-yard touchdown to Robinson, who dropped the ball. And for someone who is wearing a knee brace, Griffin sure looked like he could have outraced several of his teammates on that 21-yard scramble. Griffin’s knee isn’t as much of an issue as what’s going on between his ears.

“A little time, man,” veteran wideout Santana Moss said recently. “Whatever Robert has to do, he’ll do, but everyone just needs a little” patience.

That’s another problem: Griffin’s rookie season was so spectacular, no one is prepared to wait for him to deliver. But here’s the important question for Redskins fans: Would you rather he continue to take risks in trying to replicate last season or follow his current course in trying to become someone who is built to last?

The answer is like a quarterback slide: simple to talk about, tougher to execute.

For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.

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