In his new role as a drop-back passer, the threat of running diminished if not eliminated, Griffin has thrown three interceptions (he threw five in 15 games last year) and has been sacked four times. His longest run is 12 yards; last year through two games he had a combined 20 rushes for 124 yards. The threat of Griffin breaking into the open field made him a more effective passer, Kyle Shanahan’s offense a more complex hazard for defenses, and Mike Shanahan’s team a formidable opponent.
For two weeks, that threat just hasn’t been there, though coaches said the reason was more that the score was lopsided, rather than any residual effects from the knee injury. Kyle Shanahan said he has designed the offense and called plays with the belief that Griffin is 100 percent. Griffin has insisted his knee is fine, and he was cleared to play weeks ago by team doctors.
“When you are told someone is healthy, and he seems healthy to you, then he’s healthy,” the offensive coordinator said. The difference, he said, is that on those few zone-read calls, Griffin hasn’t pulled the ball back and run it himself. Shanahan said he maintains confidence in Griffin as a runner, but nevertheless, Griffin hasn’t made the same plays that led to his being named rookie of the year in 2012.
Looking for a spark
Dungy said that in 2002, when running back Edgerrin James returned to the Indianapolis Colts after a knee injury, James insisted he was healthy, too. But James’s words were overshadowed by what Dungy saw on Sundays; the same explosive back was gone, and in his place was a hesitant runner with limited effectiveness.
“You think you’ve got the same guy,” the former coach said. “Those guys are so competitive, and they want to be out there. It’s a tough call from a coach’s standpoint: How much does he give you, how much does he bring, and is he taking a chance on getting hurt?”
Dungy said he has seen similarities in Griffin, and a rookie who seemed invincible last season has at least appeared considerably less superhuman.
“Now you see him run to the sideline, and defensive linemen are kind of getting the angle on him, and he’s throwing the ball away,” Dungy said. “It’s just — I don’t see the same guy. . . . I’d like to see that dynamic athlete back.”
Dungy said that, in his experience, a competitor’s urge to win is stronger than any instinct to shield himself from injury. And so maybe that’s why this week, Griffin acknowledged that his team was at a crossroads, staring down the possibility of an 0-3 start with questions lingering about his skills and health and confidence. He stood in front of reporters and suggested that something needed to change; that his team’s energy needed a boost. He has considered a more aggressive leadership style or hyping his team with a sideline rap.
None seemed as clear as this simple suggestion, reinforced by the smile Griffin flashed as he said it: “I can run more,” he said.
A few minutes later, he was asked if this is what he wants or simply what must happen for his team to pull out of an early-season funk.
“It’s not that I want to run more,” Griffin said. “I just feel like that’s what we need. If that’s what it takes for us to win games, then I’m willing to do that. There wasn’t anything that I was like, ‘I’m going to shy away from that,’ coming into the year. Like I said, if that’s going to spark us, then I’m willing to do it.”
It’s unknown whether that will be Washington’s missing piece; besides, the defense is a bigger reason for the team’s poor start. But with Griffin as the organization’s face, and that he as much as anyone expects him to save the day, it’s a start.
“We can keep asking these questions in different ways. They’re there. The plays are in,” Griffin said. “We’re ready to run them. I’m ready to run them.”