Robert Griffin III played what must have been one of the all-around most solid debuts ever for a rookie, but much of the credit has to go to the aggressive game plan and play-calling by coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
First, they took the bubble wrap off Griffin, allowing him 26 pass attempts plus 10 runs and scrambles, which is almost as much action as he saw all preseason. The Shanahans uncharacteristically added new Griffin-friendly wrinkles to their vaunted “system,” such as option runs and other college-like plays. Instead of trying to fit the players to the scheme, they fit the scheme to the players, and it paid off.
Second, they made two bold fourth down decisions to go for first downs. The Redskins converted a fourth and 1 near midfield at the end of the first quarter, on a drive that led to the go-ahead touchdown. Early in the third quarter, up by 13 points, the Redskins went for it again on a fourth and 1 at the New Orleans 33. It’s normal for teams down by 13 to roll the dice in that situation, but it’s rare that a team up by 13 goes for it there, despite the numbers favoring the decision.
This time the Shanahans were even bolder and called a pass play. Griffin threw deep into the end zone. The pass was incomplete but it defied the age old saying, attributed to former Texas coach Darrell Royal: “Three things can happen when you throw the football, and two of them are bad.” Coach Royal forgot a fourth thing—a defensive pass interference call, which in this case set up a subsequent Redskins touchdown.
The play was smart, even if it had not drawn a penalty. Usually on fourth and short, offenses send in goal line packages of players and plays because the situations are similar. Both scenarios call for just a short gain. But goal line situations are vastly different because additional yardage beyond the amount required is useless. The yardage beyond what is required on a fourth down in the open field is extremely valuable. Plus, forcing defenses to respect the possibility of a deep pass and defend the entire field makes it easier to convert on future fourth downs.
Third, the Shanahans became aggressive in the final minutes. Too often, offenses with a one-score lead and possession will run three times to burn clock, then punt the ball. But in today’s NFL, it doesn’t matter whether the opponent has two minutes and all three timeouts or 50 seconds and no time outs. Teams, especially the likes of Drew Brees’ Saints, can score with just seconds left. (Last Sunday’s Jaguars-Vikings game featured not one, but two, game-changing multiple-play drives in the final 1:14.) The Saints’ previous two touchdown drives took a mere 1:04 and 0:53.
The only way to seal the win in the modern game is to convert first downs and keep the ball out of the opponent’s hands until the clock ticks down to its final seconds. Defenses stack the line, expecting clock-burning runs. So to convert, offenses will usually have to pass the ball, risking an interception or a strip-sack. The Shanahans trusted Griffin enough to put the ball in the air, and it paid off.
The completion to Logan Paulsen on 2nd and 13 may show up in the box score as only one completion for 22 yards, but it essentially sealed the win. For the Redskins to keep winning in the weeks ahead, they’ll need more of that aggressive style from the Shanahans.
Brian Burke is the creator of Advanced NFL Stats, a Web site about football, statistics and game theory.