Washington Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan and rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III often say that every experience is an opportunity to learn a lesson. Griffin came away from Sunday’s loss — a game in which he was sacked six times, hit on seven other passing plays, tackled hard on 12 running plays and was dizzy and had to be checked for a concussion after one of them — with two crucial lessons learned.
Defenders can legally hit him on option plays, even right after he pitches the ball. To avoid some of those punishing hits, he can take measures to help protect himself.
Against the St. Louis Rams on Sept. 16, Griffin rushed for 82 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 7.5 yards per carry. Because of that success, the Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday came after the rookie quarterback every chance they could.
More than once, the Redskins and their fans held their breath as the quarterback had to scrape himself off the grass at FedEx Field. On one third-quarter play, Griffin dove for the end zone, got hit hard, stood up, and then went back to the ground. He admitted Wednesday that he was dizzy and was checked for a concussion on the sideline. But he passed the test and kept playing.
After weeks of saying that he wasn’t concerned for Griffin’s safety, Shanahan said Monday that his quarterback couldn’t keep taking so many big shots. Griffin’s teammates also expressed concern about the poundings he takes.
“Every Monday we come in here and I’m looking at him out of the corner of my eye, making sure he’s okay,” left guard Kory Lichtensteiger said. “But he’s a tough guy, and he’s not going to complain about it. You don’t like seeing your quarterback, especially a guy that’s carrying the load that he is, taking those kinds of hits.”
Shanahan, Lichtensteiger and other Redskins players say they have to do a better job of blocking for Griffin. But Shanahan said Griffin was to blame for some of the hits he took.
“[There were] probably seven or eight hits a game that he didn’t have to take at all, and he’s gonna get better and better at that,” Shanahan said. “We want to limit the hits. That’s one thing about the option — that you’ve got a chance, really, not to take a lot of hits.”
After going back over the film of the Bengals game with his coaches, Griffin agreed.
“On some of the option plays, [I should] just make it more clear to the refs — whatever refs we have — that I don’t have the ball, because then they can’t hit me,” Griffin told reporters Wednesday. “But if I don’t come out with my hands up, then they think I have the ball, and legally they can hit me. So, just make it clear to them that I don’t have the ball, and if I do get one of those shots, then we get 15 yards.”
That would seem to put the quarterback in a bit of a predicament. One of the elements that makes the option offense work so effectively is a quarterback’s ability to sell fakes. Would a less fervent acting job diminish Griffin’s effectiveness when he pitches the ball? And how difficult or easy is it for him to retrain his instincts?
“You take some of those shots to the face and you’ll learn real fast,” Griffin said with a laugh. “I thought they were not legal hits, but coach informed me that, technically, they can hit me.”
Jokingly waiving his arms in the air, Griffin continued: “I guess I’ll be running around with my arms up a lot more, letting them know, ‘I don’t have the ball. Please hit me if you want to give us another 15 yards.’ ”
The real key, Griffin said, is quicker decision-making.
“The plays are moving so fast that I really don’t need to do too much,” he said. “It’s just as soon as the ball is snapped: What’s he doing? Is he coming upfield, is he going down hard, is he in between? And then make my decision off of that instead of, I guess, taking a step toward him and draw him in, because I got hit in the face a couple times on those.”
While Shanahan praised Griffin for his competitive fire, the coach said that some of the quarterback’s tendency to hold onto the ball can be chalked up to his lack of experience.
“When you’re in college, you extend that fake,” Shanahan said. “Sometimes you pull the team, but in the National Football League, if those defensive ends or outside linebackers give you a smack right in the face, it’s not worth it. They’re going to try to give him a smack anyhow, and when he does that, he’ll get a 15-yard penalty. It’s just different things you show on film. That’s just different things that you do to stay healthy and kind of entice somebody into giving you a shot.”
Griffin said that he is beginning to understand the differences and aims to play smarter. Once Sunday comes, and if he finds his team in need of a big play, however, all of this could change.
“The way I look at it, I’m here to help this team win,” he said, “whether it’s handing the ball off and watching Alfred [Morris] and a couple of those guys go to work, or if it’s taking a heavier load.”