The defense is porous, the running game is ineffective and mistakes keep costing the Washington Redskins yards, touchdowns and games. But something perhaps more powerful is missing: the confident, dependable play of Griffin himself.
Two games into this season, Griffin hasn’t been himself, and it’s difficult to know when the fun-loving kid with the Midas touch and the astounding skills will return.
“They didn’t have games like that last year,” ESPN analyst Merril Hoge said at Lambeau Field as he watched the Redskins’ 38-20 loss Sunday to the Green Bay Packers.
A season ago, Griffin rallied his team. A defense high on injuries and low on playmakers didn’t cost the Redskins their season, and neither did a 3-6 start. Griffin’s talent seemed to inspire a turnaround, and his attitude was infectious. He made few mistakes, and when he was on, he was magic.
Through two games, both blowout losses that second-half comebacks have masked, Griffin’s passes have been late and off-target. His runs, which are infrequent, have looked tentative. His authority and ability to pick his team up, no matter its problems, seem lost, although teammates say his mannerisms haven’t changed.
“I’m not afraid to sit here and say, ‘Put that on my shoulders,’ ” Griffin said. “I’ll take that. We didn’t start fast because of me.”
That was Griffin trying to use words to overshadow the deeds of the previous six days. He wouldn’t say much about what he can do to improve, and maybe it will just take time. After knee surgery in January, Griffin missed offseason practice, was used carefully during training camp and didn’t play during the preseason. Even if his body has healed, his confidence still could be on the mend.
“It’s not like: ‘Hey, saddle up on RGIII and take us,’ ” said Larry McCarren, a former NFL player and the Packers’ radio analyst. “It might be a while.”
Hoge said he studied Griffin’s performance in a season-opening, nationally televised loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. He said Griffin’s footwork was frenetic and shoddy, and Hoge said it was clear Griffin wasn’t as polished as he was last year.
“He was hopping around, skipping around,” Hoge said of the Philadelphia game. “There was nothing sound about him.”
Against Green Bay, Griffin forced passes he rarely attempted last season. He missed open receivers, and on one play, by the time he saw Pierre Garcon streaking across the field, Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk closed in, swatting the ball away.
“Last year, they throw that, and the linebacker would be three or four yards away,” Hoge said.
Part of that was because Griffin was at the center of an offense based on deception. Defenses had to wait, even a microsecond, to make certain Griffin wouldn’t run, and by then an opening was there. Griffin didn’t usually miss them.
Now the threat of the young and speedy quarterback, a former hurdler at Baylor, taking off upfield seems absent. Griffin said the runs remain in the offensive game plan, but because the Eagles and Packers have built quick leads, the option and designed runs have been pushed away.
But other times, Griffin seems cautious. When the pocket collapsed last year, as it did frequently Sunday, Griffin would find running lanes, hitting them aggressively and piling up points and an excitement that defined last season as much as a season-ending, seven-game winning streak that led to the NFC East championship. In 2012, Griffin averaged 8½ rushes in games he started and finished. He has averaged about half that this season.
“I just don’t know that we’re going to see the dynamic runner we saw a year ago,” Fox analyst Troy Aikman said during the game broadcast Sunday.
This season, when the interior offensive line is pushed backward, Griffin stays in the pocket and tries to throw over linemen. Already, he has had several passes batted down.
“I’m not just going to run just to show people that I’m back,” Griffin said Sunday. “I think that’s stupid.”
And so he passes, 40 times on Sunday and 49 the previous Monday, and too often his attempts are off target. Even the easy throws look more difficult, such as a fourth-quarter touchdown pass delivered behind tight end Jordan Reed. Another pass on third down came in too high for Garcon, and on fourth down, Joshua Morgan couldn’t haul in an on-target pass, tipping it into the hands of Green Bay defender Mike Neal. That was Griffin’s third interception; he didn’t throw his third pick until his seventh game in 2012.
“It’s way too early to say he’s not going to be the same,” McCarren said of Griffin. “Ain’t nobody would’ve been the same right now, that close to major surgery, I don’t think.”
Hoge said he noticed progress in Griffin’s game Sunday: improved footwork and confident passes, particularly in the second half when the Packers’ defense backed off. Hoge said further improvement should come in time — but only if Griffin continues learning and working on small things, such as handoffs and tosses to rushers.
While Washington waits, McCarren said the team must find a way to reduce pressure on Griffin, who has gotten little help from his team — whether receivers’ drops, a running game that lacks intimidation,or a defense that allowed 580 total yards Sunday.
“I don’t point the finger at anybody else,” Griffin said. “Whatever goes on on that field, I’m responsible for that.”
More words, and so the Redskins and their fans wait to see whether these two weeks are temporary setbacks — things they’ll laugh about later; more experiences that will be seen as moments that fortified Washington for another dramatic turnaround.
“Sometimes in your second year, you get a wake-up call,” Hoge said. “You go, ‘Oh, snap, maybe I forgot I need to make sure I’m sound everywhere in this league at all times.’ Just your God-given ability isn’t good enough.”