If ever a man had the deck stacked against him, it was Robert Griffin III in 2013. Some of it was by his own doing, some by others, and some by circumstances beyond anyone’s control.
Reconstructive knee surgery. His own stubborn/competitive nature causing him to insist on going “All in for Week 1.” The restrictive knee brace. Defensive coordinators familiar with his weaknesses thanks to an offseason’s worth of film study. Deteriorated relationships with Coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. They all ranked among the stumbling blocks in Griffin’s second season.
His completion percentage dipped. The big plays dwindled. His interception total sky-rocketed. Losses mounted. Griffin wound up getting benched with three weeks left in the season. Washington ended with a 3-13 record, and both Shanahans were fired.
The Redskins hit the reset button this offseason, however.
Team President Bruce Allen hired one of football’s brightest offensive minds available in Jay Gruden, who proved his way with quarterbacks as he groomed Andy Dalton to lead the Cincinnati Bengals to the playoffs in each of the young passer’s first three seasons in the NFL.
Allen also upgraded Griffin’s supporting cast, adding wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts to a cache of weapons that already included Pierre Garcon, running back Alfred Morris and tight end Jordan Reed. The Redskins made changes along the offensive line, aiming to improve protection for Griffin. They also strengthened the defense with the acquisition of Pro Bowl pass rusher Jason Hatcher and savvy free safety Ryan Clark. And, they fixed the special teams units.
“I feel like I’m in a great situation,” Griffin said. “We brought in some guys in the offseason — some vets in Ryan Clark and Hatch — that are really going to help with the leadership and the tone our defense sets. And then on offense, you bring in dynamic guys like DeSean and ’Dre, and it just changes your team. I just feel like when we step out there on the field, our mind-set is more ideal and prepared for whatever is thrown at us.”
But the biggest and yet-unanswered questions surround Griffin and whether he — now in Year 3 — is ready to blossom into a complete NFL quarterback. Because as Griffin goes, so go the Redskins, and it’s all eyes on No. 10 as the season kicks off. How it goes is anyone’s guess, because the programming of Griffin 3.0 remains incomplete.
“This is really the first year of him learning to be a pocket passer,” says former Redskins great Brian Mitchell, now an analyst for Comcast SportsNet. “Last year he was injured, and with all the bull they had going on last year I’m surprised he was able to do anything. But I think right now, if you look at him, he’s really getting a tutelage by Jay Gruden on how to be a pocket passer. It’s going to come down to ‘Can he be it?’ ”
That question looms after Griffin had such an uneven preseason. In three abbreviated appearances, he completed 65 percent of his passes (13 for 20 for 141 yards) but threw two interceptions and no touchdowns while getting sacked four times. All that translated into an anemic 46.0 passer rating. Washington’s starting offense didn’t score a touchdown in the preseason.
Griffin’s struggles proved alarming to his fan base and sparked debate over whether Washington had a quarterback controversy on its hands, after backup Kirk Cousins fared better while leading the second team.
However, the rocky start didn’t surprise Gruden, who firmly endorsed Griffin as his starter.
Ever the realist, Gruden — himself a former quarterback — during training camp news conferences frequently ended statements of praise or constructive criticism on Griffin with the reminder, “he has a long way to go,” or “he has a ways to go.” Allen slipped in the same caution during a brief training camp interview.
Physically, Griffin is fine. Gone is the bulky knee brace that restricted his movements and reduced his speed to that of a mere mortal instead of the world-class level of 2012. Griffin says he doesn’t even think about his knee any more. He can turn on the jets and elude pass rushers with the best of them. His arm is as lively as ever.
But there’s so much more to high-level quarterbacking in the NFL, as Gruden and offensive coordinator Sean McVay continually preach.
With the run plays designed for Griffin scaled back to a minimum, the quarterback is learning how to operate almost exclusively from the pocket. Coaches would prefer he use his legs to extend plays. But they continue to preach the importance of him either sliding to avoid tackles or simply throwing the ball away in an unfavorable situation and moving on to the next play. That life-long improvisational instinct is hard to break, as was evident this preseason when Griffin has taken off from the pocket, trying to weave through traffic and outrun defenders.
“He wants to show everybody how tough he is, probably more than he needs to,” teammate DeAngelo Hall observes.
Mitchell said: “He’s still thinking he’s got to prove to people that he can do it all. But this is the NFL. There are athletes on your team, so you don’t have to make every play. He might have been the best athlete in high school, and was probably the best athlete in college. He’s not the best in the pros. He needs to understand that he doesn’t have to make every play because of what they’ve put around him. The quicker he can understand that, the quicker he’s going to make the transition.”
To help Griffin’s transition, Gruden and McVay blended Washington’s playbook from Griffin’s first two years with Gruden’s system. The run game remains the same. There are some similarities in the passing game. But there are more differences than parallels.
The pass routes are now more sophisticated, and they are predicated on the quarterback executing with more precise timing, anticipation and accuracy. Griffin also has more responsibility. Under Gruden, the quarterback must now change plays at the line depending on the looks the defense gives pre-snap. And, after having to only scan half the field on a given play in his setup under Kyle Shanahan, Griffin now must read the entire field, work through all his progressions and make the right decisions.
Thus far, Gruden & Co. have seen mixed results from Griffin.
On quick-hitter passes, or plays that require little reaction, he has done well. But Griffin has shown inconsistencies on slower-developing plays, or in situations where things break down and he must improvise, coaches say.
He and the offense clicked best during a long drive in Week 2 of the preseason against Cleveland when, while directing an up-tempo series, Griffin completed four straight passes, moving the ball into Browns territory. But he killed the drive by throwing an interception because he waited too long to throw to Jackson — wanting to see him come out of his break to pull the trigger rather than throwing with anticipation.
Then the next week at Baltimore, in the starters’ final dress rehearsal of the preseason, Griffin was at his worst. Hesitant throughout a half of play, he completed 5 of 8 attempts for just 20 yards and an interception. He held on to the ball too long and twice got run out of bounds for sacks. Gruden sent the starting offense onto the field to start the third quarter, but Griffin threw an interception on the first play because he tried to force the ball to Morris on a check-down while Reed ran wide open down the seam. Griffin ended the night with a passer rating of 27.1.
Griffin played down the performance as just an off night.
“I think just going through that process, having a bad outing tonight, will help us in Game 1,” Griffin said. “I know people can’t see that right now. There will be overreactions all over the place. But it’s our job to make sure we stay cool, calm and collected and keep fighting on.”
But Gruden recognized indications of where Griffin still needs to improve.
“It’s a little bit of everything. That could be a function of him not trusting the coverage, not trusting his footwork, but that’s something that he’s got to get out of,” the coach said. “He’s got to have a trust factor that the drop is going to match the receiver’s depth and all that stuff. He’s got to let some things fly. He’s just a little bit hesitant right now, which is normal with some new concepts. . . . You know, he’s in his third year, like I said, and some of these route combinations are new to him. . . . It will come. He’s got the ability to do it, he’s got the smarts to do it, he’s got the wants to do it. He’s just got to do it.”
Despite his lack of decisiveness on the field, Griffin exudes confidence with his words. He has proclaimed, “I want to be the greatest.” He dismisses the notion that he has regressed and instead says he feels and sees signs of progress.
“I’m just trying to make sure footwork is on point, and the technique,” Griffin said. “I’ve been watching it real closely, and I think, from talking to some of our scouts and the people that watch me every day, they can see the difference the way my feet are aligned on those throws, and being in rhythm in practice as I try to get those perfect practice reps. I think it’s going to translate over into the games.”
Now that he has been given the ideal setup with a quarterback-specialist head coach, Pro Bowl-caliber weapons in Morris, Garcon, Jackson and Reed, plus a bolstered defense, Griffin says he doesn’t feel like it’s all on him to perform.
“For me, it doesn’t put the pressure on me because I know I don’t have to go out there and do it on my own,” he insists. “These guys are here for me, but not only for me, and for Dan [Snyder] and Bruce and Jay, but for this city. And we’re all trying to go out there and win championships. So, it’s not all on me. I don’t feel all that pressure like, ‘Oh, man. We’ve got all these weapons. We have to be successful.’ Well, yeah, we do, because that’s the way we approach it. But it’s not like there’s a pressure I feel to make that happen.”
Mitchell has seen Washington run through 25 quarterbacks since his career began here in 1990, but he believes the Redskins will exercise patience with Griffin this season regardless of how bad he struggles.
The quarterback can earn himself a nice extension this coming offseason with a big year. But after this season, he has one more year remaining on his rookie deal. Yet Griffin still has time, Mitchell believes.
“I don’t think this is a make-or-break year for him because it’s Jay Gruden’s first year, and because they gave up so much for him,” Mitchell says, referring to the three first-round picks and a second-rounder shipped to St. Louis for the rights to select Griffin. “But I think once he gets into that second year with Jay Gruden, he’d better have it by then, or all the questions are going to start again. He doesn’t like to hear negativity. But if he doesn’t have it by next year, it’s all he’s going to hear.”
Having said that, Mitchell adds that Griffin does, however, need to show progress in Year 3, for everyone’s peace of mind.
“He’s got Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson, Andre Roberts, Jordan Reed, Alfred Morris. That’s five unbelievable weapons right there,” Mitchell said. “If you can’t get it done with them, nobody’s going to care. They don’t care if you’re young, if you’re in the first year of an offense. Nobody’s going to care. You have those type of weapons, you’d better be getting stuff done.”