Watching Robert Griffin III play this season often has been painful, especially for the Washington Redskins. The 2012 offensive rookie of the year is having a sophomore slump during a disappointing Redskins season. There’s a lot wrong with Washington’s most important player — but an injured knee isn’t among his problems.
Many fans and media observers have speculated Griffin isn’t fully recovered from knee surgery in January (my colleague and friend Sally Jenkins is part of that group ). They’ve argued Griffin should be replaced by Kirk Cousins. The only notion more misguided than blaming knee pain for torpedoing Griffin’s season is that Cousins is now the team’s best option at quarterback.
Griffin is as physically sound as any NFL signal-caller who has been pounded in a demoralizing 3-8 season can be. But he is still learning the game. He must stay on the field to work on his weaknesses — reading defenses and making quick decisions in particular. Griffin won’t fix anything watching from the sideline.
Those pushing for change received a celebrity endorsement Monday. After the San Francisco 49ers manhandled the Redskins in a 27-6 victory, 49ers outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks said Griffin should not be playing because he’s still hurt and “you can see it. Everybody can see it.”
What’s clear is that Griffin is not the same electrifying player who produced weekly oh-my moves last season while leading the Redskins to their first division title in 13 years. And here’s what everyone needs to understand: Griffin may never be that guy again.
Fact is, there are no guarantees an athlete will be as fast and quick after reconstructive knee surgery, let alone in the first full season back. Just ask Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan. While coaching the Los Angeles Raiders in the late 1980s, Shanahan watched star wide receiver and returner Tim Brown suffer a serious knee injury. Although Brown’s knee was physically sound after surgery, Shanahan said, he had to learn to play a step slower. “He was 4.25 [in the 40-yard dash] before and 4.5 afterward,” Shanahan recalled the other day. “He still [had a Hall of Fame-type career], but he wasn’t the same.”
And Griffin has had two reconstructive procedures on his right knee.
In the first month of the regular season, Griffin was adjusting to wearing a bulky leg brace. As Washington started 0-3, Griffin often appeared unsure of himself, which wasn’t surprising. He sat out the offseason training program and preseason. His last game action occurred during the postseason loss to the Seattle Seahawks in January . He returned to direct a more drop back-oriented offense that he and his father, Robert Griffin Jr., publicly pushed Shanahan and his son, Kyle, the team’s offensive play-caller, to implement. The Shanahans did so despite the fact Griffin and Washington’s small offensive line (by NFL standards) were not ready to execute it well.
But anyone who has closely watched Griffin since training camp sees how much better he moves on the field now. The microanalysis of Griffin’s mechanics has been a source of amusement at Redskins Park, some within the organization say, because it’s not as if Griffin played the position like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in the pocket last season. He merely produced Brady-and-Manning results.
After the Redskins sent three first-round picks and a second rounder to the St. Louis Rams for the second overall pick in the 2012 draft to select Griffin, Kyle Shanahan designed a spectacularly successful offense — the Redskins last season led the league in rushing, tied for first in yards per play and finished third in passing efficiency — that eased Griffin’s transition into the league.
During the Redskins’ season-closing, seven-game winning streak, I asked a longtime NFL defensive coach whether Griffin was among the best rookie quarterbacks in NFL history at reading defenses. “There’s no way to tell,” he told me. The coach explained opponents were so afraid of Griffin bolting from the pocket, they usually committed linebackers as well as safeties to guard against the run. As a result, Redskins receivers often ran free. Even when cornerbacks had help from their safeties, midrange passing opportunities were open because linebackers had to focus on trying to keep Griffin contained.
This season, without Griffin being considered a home run threat, Washington’s offense has faced more complicated defensive alignments. Linebackers are dropping deeper, and safeties and cornerbacks are bracketing wide receiver Pierre Garcon, Griffin’s favorite target. Griffin has had to do more in terms of surveying the defense, cycling through his progressions and making decisions. He’s finding out how easy he had it last season — and how much he still has to learn.
At this point, anyone who focuses on Griffin’s knee is missing the bigger picture. Griffin must overcome his shortcomings in the pocket. That’s the only way the Redskins’ pain will stop.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.