The play was instinct, Robert Griffin III said, too fast to think.
There he went in the fourth quarter, leaving the pocket to run upfield, shades of better days, and Detroit Lions defenders closed in. Earlier, when Lions safety Glover Quin had pursued on another Griffin run, the Washington Redskins quarterback slid feet first, hoping to avoid a hit to the face.
This time, though, he dived forward, and as he landed on his right elbow, the ball came loose. A Lions defender grabbed it. Griffin looked toward the officials, motioning that he thought he was down. It was a fumble, though, more promise spoiled by a costly error.
“Too many mistakes,” Griffin said later, “at crucial times.”
This was the lingering and symbolic image of Washington’s third loss and Griffin’s latest start in a quest to become the quarterback he once was. He showed improvement Sunday, but for every impressive play, there too often was a discouraging footnote. Hope, followed by reality. Signs of progress, then another loss — this time 27-20.
First, the good: Griffin’s footwork was better, and his passes were crisper. He had said the previous week he was willing to run more, and by moving the pocket and reviving the zone read, he kept Detroit off-balance. A split second of confusion, as Lions defensive lineman Ziggy Ansah showed during one pass play, and Griffin could find open receivers. Griffin had six rushes, his most in a game this season, and these were reasons to celebrate.
Last season, Griffin lived in a similar spotlight, and he was a perfect showman. Now reality is unkind. His encouraging plays are overshadowed by miscues, not all of them his fault. Who can remember a 21-yard scramble if he fumbles at the end? Or that he extended plays by stretching the pocket, only to be caught from behind somehow by the 271-pound Ansah?
This week, few will discuss Griffin’s rollout and 11-yard pass to Jordan Reed because of the play immediately after it. The quarterback again rolled to his right, unable to outrun Detroit lineman Willie Young, and forced a pass toward Pierre Garcon. Chris Houston intercepted it.
“You make the play, it’s a great play,” Griffin said. “You don’t make the play, it’s a bad play, and it was a bad play.”
For the third consecutive week, Griffin threw at least 40 passes. Against the Lions, he threw a career-high 50. Even during the darkest days of 2012, when Washington started 3-6, Griffin never attempted more than 39 passes. Through less than a fifth of the season, Griffin is on pace to attempt 741 passes (which would be an NFL record), throw 21 interceptions (he had five in 2012) and rush for less than half his 815 yards as a rookie.
“He got going a little bit,” Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. “But we made sure we didn’t let him go overboard.”
The worry after three contests is that the days of Griffin going overboard could be a rare sighting. And that this season is becoming more like Sunday’s game: more bad from Griffin than good.
He is simply not the quarterback he was as a rookie. He’s not as quick, his decisions are often made too late and his passes lack consistent accuracy. It’s early enough in the season that this can still be blamed on a young quarterback who played almost no football for eight months, one whose right knee is still healing and NFL acumen is still growing.
But is that the hope, or is reality something different?
In the past, Griffin was rarely chased down by defensive backs, let alone linemen. His mechanics were solid, and his decisions were sharp. Through three games, he doesn’t react as quickly, his runs are often tentative and his decisions — or, rather, instincts — show a quarterback who, like on his dive forward or when defenders surround him, looks uncomfortable.
Last season, the Redskins needed Griffin to mask their deficiencies. Now three games into the 2013, it’s clear Griffin needs his team to mask his own.
In the fourth quarter Sunday, the dive and fumble temporarily forgotten, Griffin dropped and delivered a deep pass toward the end zone. Wide receiver Aldrick Robinson appeared to catch the ball, and the FedEx Field crowd erupted after the assumed go-ahead 57-yard touchdown. Griffin walked away from the end zone, took a knee and pointed toward sky. He looked relieved as much as anything.
Then referee Ed Hochuli saw the replay, which confirmed Robinson had juggled the pass. An incompletion, not a touchdown. Another moment of hope, lost in a growing pile of reality that Washington would just as soon forget.
“A moment of having a lot of excitement,” Griffin said later, “to knowing that, hey, we’ve got to get back on the field and do it again.”