The first hit was a helmet to the chest. The second, a helmet between the shoulder blades. And the third hit came from the ground itself, which is where Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III was flung by the third Cleveland defender to lay a hand on him during his frenzied scramble on second and 20.
The pummeling unfolded in the span of a few seconds, if that, during the Redskins’ second drive. And it was painful to watch, even if you weren’t aware that Griffin was roughly 18 months removed from reconstructive surgery on his right knee.
Trying to conjure heroics from a hapless situation, Griffin ended up batted around like a pinball by two onrushing defensive backs and a 6-foot-4, 240-pound linebacker. He gained 18 yards on the play. But the drive proved futile, ending on an interception of a ball that Griffin intended for DeSean Jackson.
Washington went on the win the second preseason game for both teams, 24-23, in front of a FedEx Field crowd that grew increasingly silent and sparse as the offensive misadventures mounted.
But the Redskins’ starting offense was shut out by Cleveland’s first-team defense. Through two preseason games, Griffin has engineered four drives and come away with only three points.
And the more pressing concern is that Griffin, the 24-year-old face and future of the franchise, has either failed to learn how to protect himself on running plays or refuses to do so.
If there was a lesson from Griffin’s first two seasons in the NFL, this was it: Sometimes it’s better to throw the ball away, take a sack or slide. It’s also a lesson that first-year Coach Jay Gruden has stressed all preseason as he attempts to turn Griffin into a more proficient pocket passer.
Griffin, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner who barely put a foot wrong during his career at Baylor, has paid a steep price for his insistence otherwise.
Adamant that he didn’t need to come out of Washington’s playoff game against Seattle as a rookie despite being obviously hobbled, Griffin played until he shredded the major ligaments in his right knee.
He underwent surgery reconstructive surgery in January 2013, wasn’t sufficiently healed to participate fully in training camp, missed all four preseason games heading into his second season and never recaptured his form.
He projected bravado instead, joking that September that he might need to enlist the help of Washington Nationals slugger Bryce Harper in learning to slide.
Monday against Cleveland, he found himself in the crosshairs of defenders on three runs with mixed results.
The first was a scramble early in the Redskins’ second drive. Griffin gained four yards before skidding to a halt awkwardly, with his right leg folded oddly underneath.
At that point, Monday’s heavily hyped preseason game was scoreless, with Washington and Cleveland’s first-team offenses matching each other in futility.
Cleveland’s first two possessions fizzled on three-and-outs.
Washington’s opening drive ended on a turnover, with normally reliable running back Alfred Morris fumbling a routine pitch.
A penalty against Andre Roberts brought up the second and 20 on Washington’s 19. That’s when Griffin scrambled to his left and gained impressive ground as Cleveland’s Joe Haden closed.
“I was in a situation there where I thought I was going to be able to get out of bounds,” said Griffin, credited with 24 yards on four carries. “He was running out of bounds with Jordan Reed, and he came back in so I had to protect myself. That’s why I put my shoulder down.”
Gruden conceded that he was concerned seeing Griffin putting himself in jeopardy.
“It’s something we have to continue to talk to him about: how important he is to this franchise,” Gruden said. “When he gets out of the pocket, he needs to protect himself. He’s had a career where he’s been able to get out of those predicaments with his speed and athleticism. But here, being that it’s a 16-game season with all the great talent that’s across the league, he’s got to pick his shots and learn how to get down a little bit better.”
It is the paradox of Griffin’s young career.
His prodigious self-belief is at the heart of his play-making ability. But that same self-belief can translate into a stubbornness that ultimately proves self-defeating.
“It’ll continually be a work in progress,” Griffin said, asked about his decision-making when he takes off with the ball. “I’m going to keep focusing on getting down in those situations — knowing when to fight for those yards and when not to.”
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