When defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin watches television, his mind sometimes wanders to the ideal football stance for an NFL defensive tackle: legs spread shoulder length, hands together punching the offensive lineman's chest. The 6-foot-3, 300-pound Griffin frequently reenacts the image in the shower or when his sport utility vehicle pulls to a stop.
Griffin has become obsessed with his stance -- keeping his feet wide apart, maintaining balance and leverage -- and hand technique.
"I think about it every day. It's not perfect," Griffin said in the Redskins' locker room yesterday. "But I'm working on it."
Before signing a seven-year, $31 million contract on the first day of free agency March 3, Griffin was tagged as an underachiever, a physically gifted player who regressed after a promising rookie season with the New York Giants. But Griffin's attention to his fundamentals has paid off with a splendid season this year as the anchor of Washington's defensive line. The Redskins' defense ranks first overall in the NFL -- No. 1 against the run and No. 3 against the pass -- and Griffin has been perhaps the unit's best performer.
Griffin leads Washington's defensive linemen with 48 tackles (including 27 solos) and leads the team with seven tackles for losses. In Washington's 13-10 victory over the Chicago Bears two weeks ago, Griffin collected consecutive sacks on Chicago's final drive to all but seal the outcome. If Griffin maintains his production, he could earn his first Pro Bowl appearance.
"My technique is so much different, much better," Griffin said. "When I watch on film and someone really gets the best of me, my feet are always crossed up. When my base is good, I'm fine."
In his four seasons with the Giants, Griffin's feet were closer together in his stance. He relied mostly on his athleticism, not mechanics. His career was marked by flashes of brilliance yet tepid production. Griffin possesses an enticing mix of size, strength and speed that provides equal ability stopping the run and rushing the passer.
"You wouldn't think guys that size would be able to move as fast as he moves," said defensive end Renaldo Wynn.
What separates mediocre defensive linemen from stars, said Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Blache, is the ability to maintain their balance while engaged with offensive linemen. It's natural for linemen to cross their feet while trying to make plays. Griffin strives to stay lower to the ground and keep his feet moving while fighting off offensive linemen.
"I don't care who you are," Blache said, "when your base is poor you're an average football player."
Blache's workouts stress balance and proper hand technique. The best drill for developing the right technique is using the two-man blocking sled, with defensive tackles punching the pad that serves as an imaginary lineman.
"If you don't have the technique, that sled isn't going to go up," Wynn said. "It will be your worst enemy if you allow it or your best friend if you have the right technique."
But in the heat of a game, it's not easy to stick to fundamentals.
"That's where I put it all together," Griffin said, "in a faster pace, at a more violent rate."
After being selected in the second round of the 2000 draft, Griffin recorded five sacks as a reserve and seemed destined for stardom. Griffin's statistics incrementally dipped -- 7.5 sacks over the following three seasons -- while criticism of him increased. But Griffin played through ankle ailments for much of his NFL career; he has missed only three games.
Griffin underwent ankle surgery before the 2003 season. Last year, he finished with a career-high 68 tackles -- a number likely to be trumped this season -- although he produced only one sack.
"The thing that I'm most pleased with is that people have talked about him underachieving in his career," said Gregg Williams, the assistant head coach-defense. "That's the farthest thing from the truth. Those people don't know anything about coaching, playing and don't know much about players. Because this is a prideful kid, a prideful man that plays hard every single down."
In New York, Griffin was a student of the game, a habit that hasn't changed in Washington. A few days each week, Griffin takes film home for extra studying. Tuesday night, Griffin watched 45 minutes of film breaking down Green Bay's offensive linemen -- focusing on left guard Mike Wahle and right guard Marco Rivera. Griffin watched one play for six minutes, rewinding it over and over until he became satisfied about how Wahle and Rivera used their hands. "I try to see what I can pick up," Griffin explained. "Where their hands are going to be: low or high?"
Griffin hasn't gained much publicity, which is almost a requirement to make the Pro Bowl. Perhaps one factor is that Griffin has a self-effacing, quiet personality, and is usually reticent in interviews. In early March, Coach Joe Gibbs granted Griffin's request not to speak at the defensive linemen's introductory news conference.
Offensive lineman Chris Samuels, a teammate at Alabama, said he had the same personality in college.
But Griffin doesn't lack confidence, often flexing his Popeye-size biceps at teammates and declaring himself one of the NFL's fastest defensive linemen. Griffin is more talkative and engaging on the football field although still reserved compared to teammates.
"He lets his play speak for itself," Wynn said. "He's the guy that walks the walk. But when he has to, he'll say what's on his mind."