Robert Griffin III stumbles as his learning process continues

CHICAGO — Anyone who watched rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III stumble here Saturday night in the Washington Redskins’ 33-31 loss the Chicago Bears should understand why Coach Mike Shanahan hasn’t been so quick to praise him recently.

Sure, Shanahan still raves about Griffin’s off-the-charts potential and work ethic, “but, hey, there are going to be some difficult times,” Shanahan told me this week. “I’ve seen it [with other young quarterbacks]. I know what I’m talking about.”

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No argument here.

From his first pass attempt at Soldier Field, Griffin had the look of an overwhelmed newcomer. Throughout a shaky 26-play performance, Griffin held the ball too long, absorbed unnecessary hits and failed in his first responsibility: Ball security.

After a solid but brief 14-play outing in his preseason debut against Buffalo, Griffin definitely took a step backward in the Redskins’ second exhibition. Facing a Bears defense that blitzed (the Bills went vanilla with a four-man rush), Griffin didn’t display the pocket presence that had sports talk radio and the Internet abuzz after the Redskins’ victory over the Bills.

Of course, the Redskins, who are missing three starting offensive linemen, struggled against the Bears’ pass rush. And if the team has to go with Tyler Polumbus at right tackle to start the season, well, that would be a very bad thing for Washington.

There were some encouraging developments for the Redskins — whose starters trailed 17-0 at one point — in a mostly dreary performance. Rookie running back Alfred Morris impressed with the type of high-energy play that Shanahan and his son, Kyle, the Redskins’ offensive coordinator, want from the position.

It seems the diminutive Brandon Banks is still too small to make an impact in the passing game. But his home run ability in the return game — Banks returned a punt 91 yards for a touchdown — is the type of thing that prompts coaches to put players on season-opening rosters.

Wide receiver Leonard Hankerson continued to help himself in his bid to become a major part of the passing game in his second season, which also could prolong Santana Moss’s career (we’ll explain).

The Redskins could have big problems on defense if Pro Bowl outside linebacker Brian Orakpo (shoulder) and safety Brandon Meriweather (knee) don’t return soon. Those are issues for later in the week, though.

Griffin, as always, was the immediate focus for a team that needs him to eventually reach superstar status on the field. The process is unfolding just as Shanahan has said it would — slowly.

Rookie’s mistakes show

It’s commendable that Griffin attempted to extend plays with his feet against the Bears. He sought to give Redskins’ receivers a chance to break free from coverage. Clearly, despite having the speed to outrun most NFL defenders, Griffin is committed to being a pass-first quarterback in this league.

But foremost, he should concentrate on being a healthy quarterback.

On the Redskins’ third play from scrimmage, Griffin ran around way too long and was thrown out of bounds by Bears all-pro defensive end Julius Peppers. He should have just stepped out of bounds with Peppers approaching him.

During the Redskins’ second possession, Griffin took another hit while running along the sideline in a silly attempt to gain a few extra yards. Griffin is not among the NFL’s biggest quarterbacks, and there is a cumulative effect to blows like that. Griffin must be smarter about taking punishment.

Then there was his passing. On third and two from Chicago’s 49-yard line in the first quarter, Griffin had tight end Niles Paul open for the first down on a nice misdirection play. Instead of leading Paul with the pass, though, Griffin threw high. Paul couldn’t come up with the ball while twisting awkwardly. That’s a passing mechanics issue that the Shanahans will work on with Griffin.

Griffin’s biggest error occurred late in the first quarter. On first down from Washington’s 17-yard line, Bears strong safety Major Wright blitzed and Griffin ran to his left to avoid the sack. Stumbling, Griffin held the ball away from his body and continued to survey the defense, apparently trying to make a play.

He should have simply tucked the ball away, took the loss and moved on to the next play. Griffin fumbled as he was sacked by defensive end Israel Idonije. Peppers recovered at the Washington 8-yard line and two plays later, the Bears scored and took a 14-0 lead.

Hopefully for the Redskins and Griffin, an important lesson learned.

Hankerson improving

Griffin’s best throw of the game was a 16-yarder to Moss over the middle in the first quarter. He second best was an 11-yarder to Hankerson on a sideline route in the second quarter.

Although that was Hankerson’s only catch of the game, it was significant because he ran a tight route, beat the defender and was where he needed to be when Griffin rolled to that side and looked for him.

Beginning his second season, Hankerson is much more confident than he was as a rookie. Moreover, he’s proving to be a reliable receiver.

Last season, Shanahan overused Moss because he had no choice. Moss, who is in his 12th season, wore down and couldn’t get separation from defensive backs late in games. It would be ideal if Shanahan could limit Moss to 20-25 snaps. The emergence of Hankerson could help make that happen.

A four-man race in backfield

Against the Bears, Morris, a sixth-round pick from Florida Atlantic, did exactly what he has done throughout training camp: Make one cut, hit the hole and pick up yards. On Washington’s first play from scrimmage, Morris located the seam on the left side and dragged three defenders for what resulted in a 21-yard gain.

On another play, Morris gained three yards after the initial hit by falling forward and stabilizing himself with his left hand before he was eventually dragged down. Shanahan wants his backs to do three things primarily: Read blocks correctly, make one move and hit the hole (no dancing back there) and pick up blitzes. Morris impressed in two of the three areas. Shanahan turned to Evan Royster on third down, so Morris didn’t have an opportunity to work on pass protection.

That’ll come. Veteran Tim Hightower and second-year backs Royster and Roy Helu had better keep working. A rookie is closing on them.

The return of “speedy” Banks

Generously listed at 5 feet 7, Banks struggles to beat coverage. Taller defensive backs (that would be all of them) break up passes intended for Banks, who is not strong enough to get inside position on patterns.

The Redskins are expected to have six receivers on the roster for the season opener against the New Orleans Saints. At this point, Moss, Pierre Garcon, Hankerson, Josh Morgan and special-teams standout Anthony Armstrong are the top five. Banks just may have locked up the sixth spot when he fielded a punt at Washington’s 9-yard line with 1 minute 50 seconds to play in the first half. He briefly followed his blockers and then broke to the right sideline, outrunning the Bears into the end zone.

Again, Banks proved he has game-changing ability in the return game. That’s probably enough to keep him around to start another season.

For Jason Reid’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.

 
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