At times this past Sunday in Tampa, the Washington Redskins lined up on offense and looked just like any other NFL team.
Rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III stood under center to take snaps from Will Montgomery. Tailback Alfred Morris ran 21 times, with the help of zone-blocking by his offensive linemen that has been a trademark of Mike Shanahan-coached teams for years.
The Redskins appeared downright conventional on offense for parts of their 24-22 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which evened their record at 2-2. That, under the circumstances, qualifies as a change of pace, given the Redskins’ reliance on college-style offensive strategies that included elements of the spread offense and the triple option.
“Any week, we can dial up something new,” veteran wide receiver Santana Moss said Monday in the locker room at Redskins Park. “But it’s great to see that we can be efficient with running our base stuff, because that’s what you want. You don’t want to have to come out there and option and do all that kind of stuff, because that puts a lot on the quarterback.”
Indeed, it is Griffin’s ability to make any approach work that has the Redskins thriving on offense. They are ranked first in the league in rushing offense, third in total offense and fourth in scoring offense. Four games into his NFL career, Griffin is the league’s fourth-rated passer behind only Matt Ryan of Atlanta, Ben Roethlisberger of Pittsburgh and Matt Schaub of Houston. He is also the second-leading rusher among NFL rookies, behind only Morris.
The Redskins set out to design an offense that would accentuate Griffin’s strengths and, presumably, hide rookie-year weaknesses. But so far, Griffin has displayed only strengths. He has been an accurate passer and avoided rookie mistakes, throwing only one interception in four games. He has run with speed and elusiveness when asked to do so.
Confident in Griffin’s ability to learn quickly (he earned his BS from Baylor in three years), Shanahan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan elected to dump the whole playbook on Griffin in large doses beginning with the rookie minicamp in May, rather than spoonfeed him the offense bit by bit. Griffin’s coaches say the rookie soaked up the information and continued to ask for more challenges.
Once organized team activities began, the Redskins worked on the traditional offense as much as they did the Baylor-style wrinkles such as the spread, option and pistol schemes that they have incorporated for their rookie quarterback.
The Redskins ran only the most basic version of the offense in the preseason, which helped Griffin get comfortable and caught teams off guard when Washington ran option plays at the start of the regular season. Each week, the Redskins have the opportunity to mix up their attack and keep foes guessing, and the versatile Griffin enables them to do it.
“I think they’re keeping defensive coordinators up late at night,” former Buccaneers safety John Lynch, now an NFL analyst for Fox, said by telephone Tuesday. “Those kinds of players like RGIII will do that. They’re doing a lot with him. On defense, you want an answer for everything an offense can do, not that you can stop everything. It wreaks havoc on a defense, at least it certainly can.”
Griffin’s seven rushing attempts Sunday were his fewest in any game this season. He also appeared to absorb fewer jarring hits. His 35 passing attempts against the Buccaneers were a season high. He also established career bests with 26 completions and 323 passing yards.
“I think the Redskins put him under center some because he was taking a lot of hits,” Lynch said. “But he can do it all. Looking at him, he’s a very proficient passer.”
The Redskins studied numerous college and pro teams before they put together their offensive system for Griffin. They have said their option running game will remain part of their offense but won’t be the main ingredient. Lynch said he thinks that’s a good blueprint.
“I think we’ve seen that in order to win a Super Bowl in the league today, you have to be able to throw the ball,” he said. “And you have to be concerned about the risk of injury if [Griffin]’s running with the ball a lot.”
Morris had his first 100-yard rushing game as a pro against the Buccaneers. His emergence as a reliable runner gives the Redskins another traditional way to attack a defense. He has topped 20 carries in each of the Redskins’ two wins and has had fewer than 20 carries in each of their losses.
But the Redskins’ system, dubbed the “East Coast offense” by Mike Shanahan, is sure to remain a blend of elements firmly rooted in the NFL game with aspects borrowed from the college version. Moss said the team has plenty more in its bag of offensive tricks.
“It’s all about adjusting,” Moss said. “So if somebody comes out and says, ‘We’re going to stop this,’ or, ‘We’re prepared for this,’ then you have to go into your book and say, ‘Okay, let’s see if they can stop this.’ That’s the good thing about having the plays that we have and having the guys that we have that can run it.”
Mike Jones contributed to this report.