He wasn’t ready. Visibly, Robert Griffin III wasn’t ready for NFL live action. Oh, he was ready for a star turn, grabbing the Redskins flag and dashing across the field with it. But as soon as we dispensed with the college-boy amateur theatricals and got down to business, it became obvious he has a ways to go before we can call him fully recovered from knee surgery and that there has been a good deal of overhype, spin, locker room politics and wallpaper paste covering up the dysfunctional drama in his record-time return.
You could almost feel the cringing by Redskins management every time he took a hit. There was that camera shot of surgeon James Andrews in his team cap, staring at Griffin watchfully, grimly ready to crook his finger at any moment. Andrews deserved to be tense: He was as responsible as anyone for the ridiculously high expectations attached to Griffin’s comeback from two ligament reconstructions in just eight months, prattling about the “unbelievable” superhero pace of his rehabilitation on ESPN.
There was tension in the entire audience every time Griffin bounced up from the turf in that exaggerated way, trying a little too hard to show he was fine, the knee was fine. “Everyone wants to see me get hit and get up, and that’s what they got to see,” Griffin said.
But we didn’t see a fully recovered athlete, much less a superhero. We saw someone more ginger. We didn’t see explosive cuts. We didn’t see the same speed. And it wasn’t just hesitancy or a knee brace holding Griffin back. We saw a little bit of a physical drag, some lingering stiffness, though that could have been our God-forbid apprehensive imagination.
For Griffin to be rusty and for his timing to be off was normal — that wasn’t the worrisome part. While other NFL quarterbacks such as Tony Romo and Eli Manning were in summer camp with their receivers, Griffin was in the treatment room four times a day doing quad-strengthening exercises. After sitting out the entire preseason , he had “a serious case of can’t-get-rights,” as he put it. He was out of sync and struggled to meet the game tempo, and it translated to the whole team with a series of miscues and turnovers that left them trailing the Philadelphia Eagles by 33-7. But you could also see him working his way through that admirably until he found better range in the second half, going 25 for 38 for 276 yards.
The worrisome part was the floaters, the lack of zing compared to a year ago, when Griffin made the ball seem almost alive. Though his passing picked up nicely, it just wasn’t as dynamic, which suggested he was planting his black cleats into the turf more softly than decisively. “He’s falling away from his throws; he’s not finishing his throws,” ESPN's Jon Gruden observed during the telecast.
As for his legs, he evaded the rush adequately — enough to move around in the pocket and sidestep and to rush five times for 25 yards, which was a relief. But his reactions were viscerally slower. Granted, the Redskins have agreed to use him differently and more conservatively this season, to cut down on his exposure. But he showed enough hesitancy to raise some question about whether he was fully capable of those electrical, jolting cuts of a year ago.
“I’m going to put it out there,” Brian Mitchell tweeted. “Robert is not 100%. I don’t know what they were seeing in camp.”
Is this health related or just a matter of uncertainty? It’s impossible to say, but the fact that it’s at all an open question means Griffin and the Redskins both overstated his readiness. The person ultimately most responsible for these high, frantic expectations is not Andrews or Coach Mike Shanahan but Griffin himself. “Operation Patience is complete,” he crowed. But it clearly is not.
The Redskins held Griffin out of the entire preseason explicitly so they could go slowly. But in retrospect, there has been a hurry-up quality to the whole thing. The only way to get Griffin game-ready is to play him. But why does Griffin have to prove he can set an all-time speed record at regaining his form? Would it hurt anything if Griffin took nine months to fully heal instead of eight? Or if he started in Week 4 instead of Week 1? Or if he took a few series in the season opener while letting the apt Kirk Cousins handle much of the load? The answer is, Griffin simply wouldn’t have it. He did everything in his power to pressure the Redskins with his public “all-in” campaign and his bravado-filled remarks.
“I’ve said it a bunch of times,” he said. “I’m pretty confident I’ll be ready.”
If you are Shanahan, how are you supposed to slow your star down without causing a rift? Whether Griffin is fully healed or not, this is not a particularly healthy dynamic.
Griffin wasn’t ready. He still has plenty of time to get ready — he showed enormous progress just in one half. But it’s pretty clear that during Operation Patience, Griffin didn’t acquire any of that quality. What Griffin needs most is not a bunch of flamboyant goals or urgent deadlines but slow, steady, ordinary progress. As Shanahan said, “This is the first round of a 16-round fight.”
For more by Sally Jenkins, see washingtonpost.com/jenkins.