Shortly after Cornelius Griffin entered last Sunday's game at FedEx Field, after sitting out the first few plays of a game for which he was not even expected to be available , he started bantering with one of the San Diego Chargers. He had had an immediate impact on Washington's pass rush and quickly informed the Chargers that he was indeed back after a long absence because of a hip injury.
"You didn't think I was going to be here, huh?" Griffin recalled telling the offensive linemen. One of the Chargers responded that he was indeed surprised, Griffin said, and a few others nodded, and it was not long before Griffin was making it exceedingly difficult to protect quarterback Drew Brees. "They noticed Griff in there right away," defensive end Renaldo Wynn said. "He's a force, man."
Griffin, 28, had missed essentially four games because of a hip flexor injury, playing only two plays in that span, and wanted to make an impact as much with his levity as with his actions.
"I wanted to have a little fun and get our guys loosened up and relaxed and once that got going on, then let's go play ball," Griffin said. "You can't play football nervous and uptight. You've got to relax and go play your heart out."
Griffin had figured he would not face the Chargers, but Saturday afternoon, he, coaches and athletic trainers agreed to give it a shot. The Redskins' defensive line has been beat up much of the season, and the lack of a pass rush was glaring at times. Washington ended up with its third straight loss, 23-17 in overtime, but managed to pressure Brees into an erratic showing and 35.7 passer rating, with Griffin's return a key component in the resurgence. Any chance of reaching the playoffs -- and the Redskins likely need to win all five remaining games to do so -- becomes exponentially smaller without him.
Griffin is the rare tackle who can take on double teams and still get into the backfield to stuff the run and attack the quarterback. He keyed Washington's NFL-best run defense in 2004 (in terms of yards per carry) and tied for the team lead with six sacks as well. This season his three sacks are just a half-sack off the team high despite his prolonged absence, and his ability to get through the Chargers game, and play significantly more than originally expected, bodes well for Washington's defense as it travels to St. Louis on Sunday to face another speedy and challenging offensive club.
"When I realized he was going to be up for the game, I was elated," said fellow tackle Joe Salave'a, who equated Griffin's absence to someone trying to walk without a left leg. "His [playing at] 60 percent is a lot more than your regular player [at 100 percent]."
Griffin continues to work with trainers to minimize the discomfort in his hip area and regain full range of motion, yet is holding himself to last season's standards.
"I'm still working through it, but it just got to where we were running out of time," Griffin said. "We just kept waiting and waiting for it to heal up, and then the season's over with. So that was pretty much it. It was time to try it.
"I could have played better; I know that after watching the film. But I'm trying to get back into the flow after missing three or four weeks. I was a little rusty, but I've got to get back into using my hands more and being more physical and violent in the running game and staying low."
After attempting to practice last week, Griffin was quite sore. He received a deep tissue massage and spent considerable time discussing the situation with the training staff Friday and Saturday. Bubba Tyer, director of sports medicine, explained that the inflammation was a natural part of the healing process, and that it could be a month or more before he would feel totally normal. Greg Blache, the defensive line coach, watched Griffin to see how much the injury was affecting his technique, then all parties agreed Saturday that Griffin would be in uniform for the game, with no guarantees about how much he would play.
"He made a comment that when he got good and warm it doesn't bother him, so during the course of the game we had hydroculators little heating pads -- set up next to the stadium wall, and every time he came out we went over and got a new pad and wrapped it on his thigh to keep him warm, and he did well," Tyer said.
Griffin ended up playing almost all of the second half when Salave'a finally was hobbled by a painful foot injury that has been plaguing him for weeks.
"Cornelius said, 'Hey, my man went down, I have to go in,' " Tyer said. "When Salave'a got hurt, he felt a need to help the team and to be out there." With Griffin -- who knocked down one pass -- occupying space and attention in the middle, the Redskins were able to attack with more precision from the edge.
"Having Cornelius out there is a big advantage," said linebacker Marcus Washington, who had 11/2 sacks. "He's an emotional leader, he's a physical presence in there, and, as an offensive lineman you can't disregard him, because he'll make you pay in the running game, and definitely in the passing game. So having him out there definitely opened up a lot of doors for other guys."
The Redskins also benefited from San Diego's approach. The Chargers, like Sunday's opponent, the Rams, like to spread the field and get multiple players involved in the offense, and kept fewer backs and tight ends in to block than most teams have. The Redskins caused a season-high three turnovers (all interceptions) and had three sacks, matching their total from the previous three games combined.
"I think it really affected [the Chargers'] play," Wynn said of the enhanced pressure. "They can say they didn't feel in sync, but I think part of the reason they weren't in sync was because we were able to get to the quarterback and make some plays, as well as our corners were able to get their hands on some balls and get some turnovers. Man, after a while it gets kind of tiresome and you get frustrated when it's always two guys on one and guys are chipping you, but they gave us an opportunity to rush one-on-one and guys took advantage of it."