Watching quarterback Robert Griffin III was so much fun last season, you sometimes forgot the Washington Redskins have a structured offense. Coach Mike Shanahan and his play-caller son, Kyle, are detail-oriented guys. Griffin worked from their blueprint. It only seemed like he was a freelance artist.
As speculation swirls about what this season’s offense will look like, one big question remains: Was last year’s success more attributable to Griffin or the system? Backup quarterback Kirk Cousins could help provide the answer.
Griffin plans to return for the first day of training camp. The buzz around Redskins Park is Griffin will be ready to start Week 1 against Philadelphia. Until Griffin is medically cleared, though, it’s all just talk. For now, Cousins is atop the depth chart.
When Cousins is under center, the threat of designed quarterback runs is diminished, and the Redskins rely more on traditional NFL-style offense. If Cousins played well over a stretch of games while replacing Griffin, we’d have a clearer picture of how much credit Kyle should receive.
Kyle definitely deserves some. The Redskins were so good on offense last season — being first in rushing and third in passer rating is phenomenal balance — that it’s impossible to ignore Kyle’s contribution. He took the framework of his father’s strategy, incorporated college-option elements rarely used in the NFL and blended it all together.
The result was a new approach that often provided Griffin with enough time to work behind a so-so offensive line, helped turn sixth-rounder Alfred Morris into a 1,600-yard rusher and kept defensive coordinators guessing. Cousins’s performance against Cleveland provided more evidence about the wisdom of Kyle’s thinking.
Playing for the injured Griffin in Week 15, Cousins was sensational during a 38-21 victory: 70.3 completion percentage, 329 yards passing, two touchdown passes and a 104.4 passer rating. Total number of read-option plays? One: a handoff to Morris. Kyle’s Cousins-tailored game plan was a smashing success. Even though the quarterback changed, the system still succeeded.
“Can I run the system at a high level, where the expectations are to score every time we have the ball? Absolutely,” Cousins said after Thursday’s offseason practice.
If Kyle’s system is so good, some might wonder, why were quarterbacks Donovan McNabb, Rex Grossman and John Beck so awful in it? Well, Kyle isn’t a magician. No matter how well an offense is designed, you still need a talented quarterback to run it. Cousins qualifies.
Long before Cousins impressed against the Browns, Mike Shanahan said he had all the tools (smarts, arm strength, leadership skills) to have a long career. Cousins’s teammates view him as much more than just a backup.
“We have two young studs at quarterback,” Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams said. Cousins “runs the system . . . just as well as anybody. And he can run, too. You have to give him credit. He is a little bit athletic. He’s no Tom Brady.”
Cousins won’t challenge Griffin to a race, but he knows how to do his part within the system.
“We’re going to be the best offense we can be when we have that zone read in when I’m playing,” Cousins said. “Will it be our bread and butter when I’m in there? No. Will it be sprinkled in? Absolutely. Will I run it as well as Robert? No. But can we get a few yards to make a worthwhile play call? Yes.”
Coaches are just as competitive — if not more so — than players. In the Alpha-male world of the NFL, most guys have big egos. Although Kyle would never admit it, he probably enjoyed seeing Cousins thrive, in part, to show it’s not all about Griffin.
But don’t be confused: Griffin is the franchise. With his physical gifts, smarts and drive, he makes whatever Kyle draws up look better. Plus, Griffin’s ability to improvise often turned play-calls that didn’t work into offensive gains.
Griffin is a once-in-a-generation talent. Kyle is a sharp coordinator. If two guys like that work together and perform up to their ability, there should be more than enough credit to share.
For more by Jason Reid, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.