Following a tentative performance marred by poor throws and questionable decisions, Washington Redskins Coach Jay Gruden was asked whether he expected quarterback Robert Griffin III to be further along than he was in Saturday’s preseason defeat at Baltimore.
“He is further along that it appears he is,” Gruden said. “I think he’s a lot further along than he gets credit for.”
It wasn’t evident against the Ravens, with Washington’s first-team offense contributing just three points toward the 23-17 losing effort.
Griffin completed 5 of 8 throws for 20 yards, none longer than seven yards, in the six drives he directed. He was sacked three times, losing 15 yards in the process, and intercepted once while failing to engineer a touchdown by air or ground for a third consecutive game.
The result was a 27.1 passer rating, down from his 77.1 rating in Monday’s preseason victory over Cleveland and his 56.2 rating from Washington’s preseason opener against New England.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Griffin rejected a suggestion his performance represented a “regression.”
“I don’t look at it that way,” the 24-year-old Griffin said, calling the defeat “a learning experience” for everyone on the team. “I’m not going to judge Week 1 or Week 2 or Week 3 of the preseason as a regression on myself or on this team or the offense in general. We’ll keep working.”
The problem is, Griffin is out of chances to improve — at least when the score doesn’t count. Gruden doesn’t intend to play his starters in Thursday’s preseason finale, so the next competitive snap Griffin takes will come in the Sept. 7 season opener at Houston.
He concluded his preseason, which consisted of 10 drives in three games, by completing 13 of 20 passes for 141 yards, with no touchdowns and two interceptions. He rushed seven times for 27 yards and was sacked four times.
A former NFL offensive coordinator who helped Cincinnati reach the playoffs in each of his three seasons, Gruden has been blunt about Griffin’s highs and lows throughout the preseason, neither coddling nor covering for him.
Throughout training camp, the coach insisted the best way to evaluate NFL players was not in practice but during games. When the spotlight is on and the stakes are high, Gruden noted, some players shine while others shrink.
It’s not that Griffin shrank under fire Saturday. Rather, he seemed to freeze, if only for a split-second, as if processing a half-dozen options before committing to a throw or taking off running. In some cases, that’s all it took for Baltimore’s defenders to seize the upper hand.
In Griffin’s defense, Gruden and his staff have been trying to convert the franchise quarterback into more of a pocket passer. Given his two knee surgeries, that’s in the long-term interest of Griffin and the team. And though Griffin is extremely bright, it’s a transition that isn’t going to happen overnight — particularly in the face of a defense as fierce as Baltimore’s.
Certainly not all the first-team offense’s struggles were the quarterback’s doing.
There were problems with the center exchange. The right side of the offensive line isn’t as stout as the left. And the lone big passing play, which tackle-busting tight end Jordan Reed milked for 29 yards, was negated by a holding call on left tackle Trent Williams.
Backup Kirk Cousins was more confident and productive in the role of pocket passer, completing 14 of 20 throws for 122 yards and two touchdowns — albeit against the Ravens’ second-team defense.
The difference was plain to see and popular fodder for broadcasts and social-media debates during and after the game.
“Let’s stop beating around the bush,” former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said on the Redskins’ Broadcast Network early in the fourth quarter. “Kirk Cousins has played much better at the quarterback position than Robert Griffin III has. Now, Robert is learning to work out of a pocket. He doesn’t look as smooth or as comfortable throwing the football. I mean, your eyes will tell you everything you need to know.”
Gruden rejected any notion of a quarterback controversy Saturday, saying, “I feel good about the starters we have.”
But with two weeks before the season opener, Gruden has few options other than staying the course.
The Redskins traded three first-round picks and one second-rounder to acquire Griffin second overall in the 2012 NFL draft, mortgaging their present and future on his bankable charisma and can’t-miss ability.
And following last season’s 3-13 fiasco, Washington doubled down on Griffin’s potential, firing coach Mike Shanahan and bringing in free agent wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts to complement Pierre Garcon and Santana Moss.
Given that investment, as well as the big-play ability Griffin demonstrated in his rookie season, it’s imperative Gruden continue developing his starter as he did rookie Andy Dalton in Cincinnati — even if a short-term fix and more compliant pupil is standing by in the 26-year-old Cousins.
In closing the books on his shaky preseason, Griffin argued that having a poor game against Baltimore would serve him well in the long run.
“I know people can’t see that right now,” Griffin said. “There will be overreactions all over the place. It’s our job to make sure we stay cool, calm and collected and keep fighting on.”