Cornelius Griffin was the only Washington Redskins defensive lineman not wearing pads yesterday as the unit practiced drills in the corner of a field amid the exhortations and under the watchful eye of Greg Blache, the de facto defensive line coach.
Griffin, wearing a burgundy-and-gold baseball cap, crouched in a three-point stance and simulated stunts with three teammates, maneuvering around obstacles on the ground instead of offensive linemen. Griffin frequently made remarks about the schemes to Blache, Washington's defensive coordinator.
The 6-foot-3, 300-pound defensive tackle -- who could only watch contact drills because of a groin injury -- is the key offseason addition to the defensive line, one of the club's weak points last season. The Redskins made it a priority to bolster the line, and signed Griffin and Phillip Daniels in the first 24 hours of free agency in early March.
However, question marks remain partly because the unit's biggest acquisition, Griffin, hasn't attained the promise of his rookie season in 2000.
"I've heard that a lot -- a whole, whole lot," said Griffin after practice. "I won't let that [the criticism] hinder me but motivate me. You can't sit there and get mad about the negative criticism. You have to use it to get better, use it to drive yourself."
When the Redskins signed Griffin to a seven-year, $31 million deal (including an $8.3 million bonus), the organization looked beyond his one sack last season. With Griffin's uncommon physical gifts and a strong work ethic used to push himself even when injured -- "a pit bull; never quits" said defensive end Renaldo Wynn -- the Redskins foresee Griffin becoming one of the NFC's best defensive tackles.
"I don't feel it as pressure," Griffin said. "I feel it as a challenge, and I always love a challenge."
Griffin played well in the first two preseason games in limited opportunities: During the 20-17 victory over the Denver Broncos last week, Griffin halted tailback Mike Anderson for a loss (last season the Redskins had only six tackles for losses) and pressured quarterback Jake Plummer. During Saturday's 23-20 loss to the Carolina Panthers, Griffin didn't register any impact plays, yet received a better grade from the coaches because of his constant penetration.
"I think he's got the tools to be a heck of a defensive tackle, and we're expecting big things for him," Blache said. "When he wasn't in the game, he was still totally into the game: talking his teammates up and giving support. I was really impressed not only with his performance on the field but off the field and in the classroom."
It's in the regular season when Griffin must overcome the criticism that has shadowed him since a sparkling NFL debut season: hardly improving -- perhaps even regressing -- and lacking consistency.
He was selected in the second round of the 2000 draft, No. 42 overall out of Alabama (where left tackle Chris Samuels was a teammate.) As a rookie, Griffin resembled a budding Pro Bowler while collecting five sacks as a reserve.
As the Giants marched to a Super Bowl XXXV appearance, Griffin contributed: In a 20-10 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, he registered four tackles and 11/2 sacks. In the NFC championship game -- a 41-0 rout of the Minnesota Vikings -- he recovered a fumble leading to a touchdown. In the Super Bowl loss to the Baltimore Ravens, he had two tackles and 11/2 sacks.
The drop to one sack last season didn't keep Griffin from drawing attention in free agency. He was considered the most complete defensive tackle available with a special mix of size, speed and strength. Such qualities give Griffin the ability to be a pass rusher and a run stopper, evoking memories of Daryl Gardener, the Redskins' 2002 MVP.
The Chicago Bears, New Orleans Saints and Houston Texans were among the teams that tried to sign Griffin. But when free agency kicked off March 3 after midnight, Redskins owner Daniel Snyder dispatched his private plane, RedskinsOne, to pick up Griffin near his home town of Brundidge, Ala.
After Washington closed the deal within hours, Coach Joe Gibbs granted Griffin's request to not speak at his introductory news conference.
"I was proud to be a Redskin," Griffin said yesterday. "But I was also ready to go to work. I'm not a man of many words."
Griffin admits to being reserved -- "quick to listen, slow to speak" -- especially with strangers, yet is full of confidence, particularly on the football field. He occasionally talks trash in games. "When I put my pad on," Griffin said, smiling, "between the lines I'm a different guy."
Linebacker Mike Barrow -- who played with Griffin the previous four seasons -- recalls Griffin declaring himself the fastest 300-pounder in the NFL during his rookie season.
"That's saying a lot," Barrow said, smiling. "Dealing with the media he doesn't say that much. But he has some cockiness about his athletic ability, rightfully so. Don't be fooled. Every now and then he's in the weight room walking around without his shirt, posing, but he's a real nice guy, though."
Griffin was reticent when asked about why his statistics slid since his rookie season. One factor was that Griffin was in a three-tackle rotation under then defensive coordinator John Fox (who departed to become head coach for the Panthers after the 2001 season). After Fox's departure, the Giants' starting defensive linemen were forced to take at least 90 percent of the snaps, and "That's a different type of pressure," Barrow said.
Ankle ailments were another factor. Griffin underwent ankle surgery before the 2003 season, and missed only one game. He finished with a career-high 68 tackles (48 solo).
Linebacker LaVar Arrington sees Griffin as ready to prove himself: "He's agile, he's strong. He's a big body. He doesn't just take up space. He makes things happen. It's good having him in there."