Robert Griffin III’s NFL education picks up as Washington Redskins face Buffalo Bills

Jason Reid
Columnist August 8, 2012

The good news for rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III is the Washington Redskins’ starters are scheduled to play only briefly during Thursday’s preseason opener against the Buffalo Bills. With the Redskins’ problems along the offensive line, the less Griffin is on the field the better for him.

Ineffective most of last season, the line may be without three starters because of injuries as Griffin makes his NFL debut. Although Coach Mike Shanahan would prefer to have the team’s top group intact (despite its limitations) to help him evaluate Griffin, “there are always things you can learn about your quarterback” despite the state of the line, Shanahan said recently. “We’ll still be able to tell how he’s doing.”

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

The around-the-clock Griffin watch moves into a new phase with the preseason beginning and the Sept. 9 season opener against the New Orleans Saints drawing nearer. Griffin and the first-team offense are scheduled to get about 20 plays Thursday night. That would be a small sample size — but still more than enough for someone of Shanahan’s experience to rate the inexperienced passer.

At this early stage of what the Redskins hope will be a long, rock-star career for Griffin, there’s no need for him to be flawless, or even particularly good, against the Bills. Just a few encouraging signs would suffice.

Griffin must be quicker in his decision-making than he has been in training camp: Read the defense, pick a receiver and throw the ball. No more waiting for the best-case scenario to develop, as he often has at Redskins Park. That’s a luxury Griffin can no longer afford.

Redskins defensive players are instructed not to hit Griffin. The Bills face no such restrictions. In fact, getting in a few good licks on a media-hyped passer in his first pro game would undoubtedly be appealing to the Bills’ defense. The faster Griffin locates receivers and gets rid of the ball, the less he will be exposed to potential punishment.

Seems simple enough. Learning how to play fast while also maintaining one’s poise, though, is among the most difficult skills for young quarterbacks to master.

In the NFL, holding the ball for even a second too long can be the difference between a successful play and a second-string quarterback suddenly becoming a starter. Griffin acknowledges he has to pick up the tempo, but the coaching staff isn’t concerned because “he’s going through the same thing” that all rookie passers experience, said Shanahan, who tutored Hall of Fame quarterbacks John Elway and Steve Young.

“That’s why we go out and work on it over and over. So when we go against a good defense like Buffalo, we’ll get an idea of where he’s at,” Shanahan said.

Shanahan and his son Kyle, the Redskins’ offensive coordinator, have thrown a lot at Griffin since naming him the starter shortly after the franchise gave up four high-round draft picks to get him. He has performed well in learning the playbook, players tell me, and has shown progress in making correct decisions when presented with difficult situations — field position, down and distance — in practice. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has constantly changed up alignments to keep Griffin guessing, especially about blitzes.

No matter what the Redskins do to Griffin in practice, however, actual game experience will be his best teacher.

“It’s just about knowing where you need to go with the ball,” Griffin said. “A lot of times in practice, you can’t really tell, because Coach [Shanahan] is making the defenders stop pass rushing.

“They’re not going to hit you in practice, because you want to get those reps throwing the ball. I’ll see whether things open up a lot more with the pass rush or whether things get clogged up a lot more. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.”

Griffin likely won’t play long enough to amass eye-opening statistics. The Redskins could be missing three-fifths of their starting line, so the Shanahans probably won’t call too many of those seven-step drop plays with long-developing patterns that require fortress-like pass protection to work.

This game is not about the numbers for Griffin. If he continues to project the same type of confidence he has in practice, “that would be important because it really is all about the games,” said inside linebacker London Fletcher, who has played in an astounding 224 straight since debuting with the St. Louis Rams way back in 1998.

“With Robert, we’ve all seen the things he can do in practice, and you definitely get excited about that as a football team,” Fletcher said. “But you know he’s a rookie, and rookies have their ups and downs, so you want to get to the games to see how he responds.”

There’s no need for alarm if Griffin overthrows open receivers or fails to see some running uncovered. And even if Griffin makes all the right moves, he shouldn’t book Pro Bowl travel arrangements quite yet. It’ll get harder.

For fans, excitement should come from witnessing the beginning of something potentially wonderful. That’s it. After all, over the past two decades, how often have the Redskins had anything worth celebrating?

“I’m a little bit more realistic than other people only because you’ve gone through it a number of times with different people,” Shanahan said. “You want them [young quarterbacks] to be able to believe in themselves. You want them to have that arrogance like they are the best at what they do. The great ones do have that confidence level.”

The Redskins believe Griffin can become great. Come Thursday, he’ll get his first chance to start proving it.

For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid

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