When Griffin steps on the field, he will complete one of the fastest recoveries from such a devastating injury, and slightly nudge up the bar from the mark where Adrian Peterson amazingly set it when he returned to action 254 days after having his own torn anterior cruciate ligament repaired at the tail end of the 2011 season.
But two questions remain: Can the quarterback’s now twice-surgically repaired knee hold up, and can Griffin fulfill his promise to come back better than ever?
Everyone inside Redskins Park believes the answers to both questions are yes.
If so, the team has a realistic chance to repeat as NFC East champions, could make a deep playoff run and develop into perennial contenders. If Griffin battles injury all year and is never the same, however, a franchise that gave up three first-round picks and a second just to be able to draft him with St. Louis’s No. 2 overall pick will take steps backward both in the short and long term.
Griffin has given his teammates and coaches every reason to believe the latter will not happen.
“He looks 100 percent to me. He can fly around. He can make the throws,” offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. “There’s no gimp at all — obviously he wouldn’t be out there if there was. But he looks good to me. . . . I’m excited to get him out there Week 1.”
Asked if Griffin’s ‘better than ever’ expectations were realistic, Peterson — the super recovery poster child himself — said, “I feel like anything is possible. I’m always trying to root guys on to accomplish their goals. I’ve spoken about things that you have to do to come back, and that’s taking advantage from that first week out of surgery on. If [Griffin] has put in that work, he’ll be able to come back and be successful.”
Griffin did take advantage of every minute possible during his recovery, and even reached out to Peterson, requesting permission to ask his personal trainer for exercises the Redskins’ trainers could implement into his recovery program.
Peterson said he has one final piece of advice for the quarterback, and he planned to share it directly.
“I plan on talking to him before the regular season starts just to tell him, if anything, be mentally tough, be mentally focused and have confidence that your leg is stronger than it was before, so go out and play your game,” said Peterson, who in addition to returning in record time also had a career year with 2,097 rushing yards — just eight yards shy of the NFL single-season record.
Griffin insists that while he does aim to surpass last season’s heroics — which included ranking among the league leaders in accuracy, passer rating and touchdown-to-interception ratio and rushing yards for a rookie quarterback — and while he did aim to return in Peterson-like quickness, he doesn’t feel pressure to rewrite the record book both from a recovery or production standpoint.
“I mean, I’m not Adrian,” he said. “But when it comes to the pressure of coming back from the injury, it’s like the old saying, ‘You only feel pressure when you don’t know what you’re doing or you’re not confident in what you’re doing.’ I feel confident in what the coaches are going to do with me, I feel confident in what I’ve been working with, with Larry — Larry Hess in the training room — and those guys. I feel confident in my body and the way it has been responding, so there is no pressure there.”
The Redskins believe improvement will come naturally for Griffin. Although he has yet to play a game, he already has begun exhibiting that growth.
“He can be a lot better from last year. You grow and you learn from Year 1 to Year 2,” wide receiver Pierre Garcon said. “He’s understanding the offense a little better. He’s been in it, so now, you understand it, you know what the team is trying to accomplish, you know where to look, what to read, what you want to see, what you don’t want to see, the coverages and body language of the defenses, blitzing and when they’re not blitzing. You understand the keys and the plays, who’s open, who’s potentially open. The more you’re in the offense, the more you’re familiar with it and can think more ahead. He’ll definitely be a lot better from last year.”
Even without the knee injury, Griffin would have faced a challenge this season. While he had the element of surprise on his side as a rookie, now defensive coordinators have a full season’s worth of game footage to dissect his approach and Washington’s offense. But, a great quarterback can overcome such challenges and perform at a high level regardless of how much footage opponents have on him.
“Everybody expects more. The better you play, the more is expected of you,” former NFL coach and current ESPN analyst Jon Gruden said. “And to be a great football player, you have to deliver. That’s what Brady did. That’s what the great quarterbacks do. Aaron Rodgers does it every year, Peyton Manning continues to do it. And if Robert Griffin is cleared and ready to roll, I expect the same from him.”
But Griffin will not take that next step if he can’t stay healthy.
Said Gruden: “We already have seen Robert Griffin get injured, unfortunately, and I’m concerned with any quarterback that runs the ball and plays the position recklessly because as far as I know, the quarterback is the only guy that can’t play on Sunday if he has a sore passing shoulder. That’s my only concern. I love watching [dual-threat] quarterbacks play. I love the style of offense that they play. The combination of drop-back passing and option football is just downright nasty to a defense to defend, but can they sustain that style of play deep into their careers and eventually become $100 million quarterbacks, as well?”
Griffin’s longevity will hinge both on the way that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan uses and protects his quarterback, and on Griffin’s own post-snap decision making.
Both Mike and Kyle Shanahan say that they will do everything they can to protect their quarterback, but they strongly disagree with the notion that they strike from their playbook the zone-read option plays that Griffin ran so effectively last season.
Both head coach and coordinator believe that the zone-read plays will help keep Griffin safe and point out that his early-season concussion and his knee injuries all occurred on broken-play scrambles, not designed runs.
“The three injuries were pass plays. They weren’t the zone read,” Kyle Shanahan said. “The zone-read is something, I learned throughout going through the year, that I think really helped us. It’s the least pass rush I’ve ever seen as a coordinator. Guys just sitting there just scared to death, just watching everyone else not moving. And I really enjoyed sometimes being able to drop back and not have four guys just teeing off on the quarterback all trying to hit him in the pocket.”
The coach has, however, preached to Griffin the importance of protecting himself by having a willingness to slide in front of a defender rather than trying to juke, out-run, or leap over him. Another tip has been to hold the ball higher rather than tucking it as he rolls out and darts around the edge so the defender still faces the uncertainty of whether Griffin is about to throw or run.
Griffin’s coaches have confidence that he has started to — and will continue to — develop a feel for all of those things. The quarterback himself says the same.
Everyone has stopped short of making predictions for Griffin’s crucial second season, however. The common refrain is something along the lines of, ‘If this kid is what we think he is, he’ll prove it this year.’
Says Santana Moss — who last season caught a team-high eight touchdown passes from Griffin — all anyone can do now is sit back, watch and wait.
“You never know, man. Anything can happen,” Moss said. “You watch sports, you watch the greats: Peyton Manning comes back better, Peyton Manning comes back sharper. Tom Brady comes back better. When you watch, Russell and RG and Kaepernick, those guys did things last year that was unheard of with the offense they ran, but defenses are going to be trying to stop that. But, I’m sure that as a quarterback, they want to get better at showing they can beat you in other ways. So, who knows. The sky is the limit for all those guys, and I’m definitely looking forward to him being better, as we all would on this team.
“I’m not going to be sitting here and be the expert and tell you what he can do,” Moss added. “I just feel like right now, it’s ‘To be continued.’ ”