Robert Griffin III: what we still don’t know

Sally Jenkins
Columnist September 11, 2012

Somehow, Robert Griffin III has to keep all the mess out of his head. Buried under the cooing overpraise and the extravagant raving from Hall-of-Famer analysts is a 22-year-old who doesn’t know yet what he doesn’t know, and who is trying to keep his mind clear so he can learn. Whose debut performance at quarterback for the Redskins was actually less spectacular than it was level-headed and well schooled.

Yes, yes, RGIII displayed glimpses of the fire-hose arm and the electric, game-breaking legs that make you want to talk about greatness for the next decade. But you know what? Someone has to talk about next week. Griffin showed that he is an excellent executor of a terrifically conceived short-term strategy, against a New Orleans Saints team in disorder. It started with six consecutive passes behind the line of scrimmage. That is not a criticism of Griffin. It’s simply to say that if you want to do the kid a sincere favor, refrain from calling him the greatest this or most that, until he’s had more than one start in the NFL. Until he plays against a defense that actually can game plan for him, now that it’s seen him.

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

“How people get good at the position is repetition,” Coach Mike Shanahan says, “and the more he experiences in-game situations the better he’s going to get, and that happens over time.”

No matter how unprecedented RGIII’s athleticism and skill set, a reversal is inevitable for a young quarterback. Teams will adjust to him, perhaps as quickly as this weekend against the St. Louis Rams. What we don’t know — and this is far more important in assessing him than a single season opener — is how he will adjust to the adjustments. What happens when opposing coaches get a book on him? When the counterpunching truly begins?

The Saints had to guess at what to do to stop Griffin, and that left him wide-open spaces; the Rams will have more information to work with. Already, their coaches have no doubt probed the film and identified any telltale weaknesses.

There were some things — not many — Griffin didn’t do quite so well. He didn’t throw the deep ball great. He could have made better decisions on a couple of those option plays; he didn’t give the ball up when he should have. There were a couple of glitches on play fakes, and he was lucky to avoid an interception.

Then there are the areas where we still don’t have a lot of information, where the opposing coaches will do deeper analysis and try to test him. He didn’t throw much over the middle against the Saints — though when he did, he made the play of the game, on that big fourth quarter conversion to Logan Paulsen that ensured the win. His performance reading the defense at the line of scrimmage seemed excellent, but also strict; it was difficult to tell just how broad or narrow his audible package was.

“I would say there were a lot of things I saw [that he could do better], that most people probably wouldn’t see,” says his father, Robert Griffin Jr., his lifelong coach. “I saw some things that he can do to help himself for later on.”

Asked for specifics, his father says, “I don’t want to tell you.” Neither does Shanahan. People are working hard at hiding whatever Griffin’s deficiencies are, as is the quarterback himself. He has been asking the Redskins’ veteran defenders, “What do you see?” Throughout training camp and the preseason he pestered the London Fletchers and DeAngelo Halls with the question: “Am I showing my hand?”

Eventually, weaknesses will be exposed. They will be exposed when the wear and tear of a season sets in, when he is continually forced to run and scramble, and his step slows. When defenders fool him and uncover the footwork that isn’t quite yet grooved, or the reads that aren’t yet fully internalized. When he’s exposed to the full array of NFL defenses, and doesn’t have the benefit of Shanahan’s famous ability to use weeks of preparation to win a season opener.

“He’s still absorbing,” Shanahan says. “It takes two or three years before you really feel comfortable, knowing what the defenses are going to do, and you don’t have to think, and can just react.”

That’s why RGIII’s biggest asset is not his legs or his arm, but his head. By all accounts, he is working hard to keep it from being turned. He has called retired NFL quarterbacks and sought advice. He asked his parents to move to the area from their home in Texas, in order to help keep him straight. They have been staying in Gaithersburg. “To keep a little eye on him for a bit, to make sure he does the things he needs to do, keep the values that he has,” says his father.

It’s impossible to know if Griffin’s performance against New Orleans is going to be his baseline this season. In all likelihood he won’t experience a smooth trajectory or continuum, but rather a series of retreats and advances. “He knows this is going to be a long year in his life,” his father says.

But there is one trajectory we can already identify: Griffin’s level-headedness. He appears to be trying to keep his ears closed to overpraise, yet open to instruction. That’s a pretty neat trick in someone so young.

“The expectation is so high that a lot of buzz comes with the position,” Shanahan says. “And what Robert’s been able to do is concentrate on the job at hand and put everything second relative to football. He’s got his priorities straight. He’s trying to find out, always learning, leaving no stone unturned.

“Some guys talk the talk, and then some guys talk and work. When you’ve got that, there is no phoniness in it, and you know you’ve got the real deal.”

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