Robert Griffin III’s passing problems raise questions about his ability to become elite

The Post Sports Live crew breaks down Robert Griffin III's performance in the Redskins loss to the Broncos and whether the quarterback can be a great pocket passer. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)
Jason Reid
Columnist October 30, 2013

Quarterback Robert Griffin III is on the move again because that’s what the Washington Redskins need and Griffin’s running could help the team salvage its season. But Griffin’s ineffective passing raises an important question: Will he ever be an elite drop-back passer?

The Redskins accommodated Griffin by adding more drop-back passes to their run-oriented offense this year, but he has struggled with accuracy and decision-making. Although it would be easy to ascribe Griffin’s setback to the ongoing rehabilitation of his knee after reconstructive surgery, there’s more to the problem than rustiness. This season, the 2012 NFL offensive rookie of the year hasn’t demonstrated the confidence, instincts or efficiency quarterbacks need to thrive in the pocket.

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

It’s not a question of smarts. Griffin is as sharp as any 23-year-old athlete you’ll ever meet. Nor is it a question of talent. It would be misguided to suggest Griffin, only seven games into his second season, is incapable of becoming as good as Peyton Manning or Tom Brady someday. He’s far from their level at the moment, though, and the Redskins coaching staff’s decision to restore some of last season’s running plays for the quarterback is risky — and may hinder his development over the long term.

Griffin’s problems in the pocket were on display in Sunday’s 45-21 blowout loss to the Denver Broncos. Against a defense that ranks among the worst in the NFL against the pass, Griffin threw for a season-low 132 yards, completed only 15 passes in 30 attempts, was intercepted twice and lost one of two fumbles. He did throw a touchdown pass, and the threat of him running helped the Redskins take a 21-7 lead in the third quarter. For most of the game, however, he overthrew and underthrew his targets or failed to look in the direction of open receivers.

On many plays this season, Griffin has been a one-read quarterback, usually locking in on top wideout Pierre Garcon or impressive rookie tight end Jordan Reed and failing to find an alternative when they are covered. Frequently, he waits for receivers to complete routes instead of releasing the ball in anticipation of them breaking free from coverage, giving defensive backs more time to disrupt plays.

In relying primarily on college option-style formations on offense in 2102, the Redskins ranked first in the NFL in rushing, was tied for first in yards per play and were third in passing efficiency. Running backs and wide receivers had more room to maneuver because opponents were so concerned about Griffin bolting from the pocket. This season, the Redskins’ offensive statistics are way down across the board, and Griffin’s are, too.

A model of efficiency last season, Griffin set a rookie record with a 102.4 passer rating, good for third in the NFL. Griffin’s 79.2 mark this season doesn’t rank among the top 20. While leading the Redskins to their first division championship in 13 years, Griffin passed for 20 touchdowns and only six interceptions a year ago. Griffin’s nine touchdown passes and eight interceptions this season aren’t numbers to smile about. It often appears Griffin and his receivers are working from different playbooks. His completion percentage has dropped from an impressive 65.6 percent last season to 59 percent.

The responsibility for most of what has gone wrong falls on Griffin. Aided by his father’s public comments, Griffin made it known during the offseason that he wanted to pass more and run less. The truly great NFL quarterbacks are known for their passing, not their running, a point Griffin’s father, Robert Griffin Jr. made clear to my colleague Dave Sheinin last spring: “I just know that based on what I know Robert can do, he doesn’t have to be a runner as much as I saw last year. To me, you’re paying these [receivers] a lot of money to catch the football. I’m his dad — I want him throwing that football, a lot. A lot.”

Problem is, Griffin hasn’t developed enough yet to be a pure drop-back passer. And the Redskins’ offense isn’t good enough to succeed without quarterback option trickery, which is based largely on the threat of Griffin running the ball. Griffin learned that the hard way trying to operate a traditional, drop-back passing attack as the Redskins started this season 0-3. Before the clunker in Denver, the offense had shown a spark recently, which coincided with Griffin running the ball more.

Griffin and the coaching staff are united in this turn-back-the-clock approach because Griffin enjoys playing the hero role and Mike Shanahan, with one season remaining on his contract, needs as many victories as possible to strengthen his argument for receiving a multiyear contract extension. But in this situation, the quick-fix plan isn’t the wisest long-term strategy for the organization — or Griffin. If Griffin suffers another significant injury, the Redskins could have to start all over again in their search for a franchise quarterback. And if Griffin doesn’t learn how to operate as a drop-back passer, he may never develop into the type of historically great quarterback he aspires to become.

In what could shape up to be another wasted season, the Redskins have an opportunity to force Griffin to concentrate on the weakest part of his game with the future in mind. Instead, they are taking the easy path, and that could prove very costly.

For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.

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