So far this season, the Washington Redskins have called four times as many plays for Robert Griffin III (160), who is returning from major knee surgery, as they have for their completely healthy 1,613-yard running back, Alfred Morris (40).
Is this a franchise with a death wish?
As much as any factor, the rest of the Redskins’ season will be defined, starting Sunday against feeble Oakland, by their ability to keep the weak defense off the field as much as possible with a reasonably balanced offense that includes a strong running game that maximizes time of possession. That will require a change in their current play-calling. Perhaps the Redskins know this already, but they have certainly denied it in public.
For three weeks, Washington coaches have maintained they have not changed their offense significantly, nor put Griffin at risk unnecessarily even though they have passed more than any NFL team except Cleveland. In contrast, last season Washington led the NFL in rushing and had more runs (519) than passes (442), and just two teams passed less often.
The radical reversal in run-pass ratio this season, Coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan say, is an aberration caused by the lopsided scores in the team’s three losses. We have no choice but to throw to catch up, they say.
This would be reassuring if it were true. But it isn’t.
Even if you focus on those portions of the losses to the Eagles, Packers and, especially, the Lions last week, when score and game-situation allowed Washington coaches to pick any play-calling pattern they chose, they called plays for Griffin to pass or run more than twice as often as for the durable Morris. That ratio is 58-to-26 for the season and 41-to-15 last week at a point in the fourth quarter when the Lions led by just three.
Last week on his TV show, Shanahan said that against the Eagles and Packers, the Redskins turned away from the run, including the read option, only when behind by “three touchdowns or sometimes four.” If you use that method (and expand the sample to include times when the Redskins trailed by less than three touchdown before the fourth quarter even began), then the ratio of Griffin passes-sacks-scrambles-and-runs to running plays for all the Redskins running backs combined would be, 67-27.
Shanny probably knows that. There’s no law that Coach Candor is a good idea early in troubling seasons. But he should be concerned about that crazy 41-15 ratio of Griffin-to-Morris against the Lions. Morris averaged 4.9 yards per carry and broke a 30-yard touchdown run. Yet, at home against a team that was 4-12 last year, the Redskins acted like RGIII had to save them.
The Redskins are trying to cope with two difficult offensive problems at the same time. First, Griffin isn’t as fast as he was last year. You can see it. And NFL experts comment on it. Partly it’s the knee brace. Maybe he’ll get a step back in a month or a year. Or maybe he’ll never be quite the same blur. Second, RGIII on the read option just isn’t the same threat.
What choice does that leave Washington? Well, the entire traditional NFL playbook and every system that Mike or Kyle ever cooked up before last year in Washington.
That should be enough. The threat of RGIII on the read option helped Morris gain those 1,600 yards as a rookie. But play-by-play breakdown has shown that about 1,200 of those yards had nothing to do with option plays.
In the final week of last regular season, RGIII was so gimpy that nobody in a Cowboy uniform seriously thought he was going to do much running and probably not too much throwing either. In fact, Griffin completed just nine passes for 100 yards and ran six times. But with the NFC East title at stake, Morris ran 33 times for 200 yards, scored three touchdowns and had FedEx Field chanting “Al-fred Mor-ris” over and over in a 28-18 win.
The week before the Dallas win, the Redskins won in Philly, and the balance of Griffin-to-Morris plays was 27-23. That was an RGIII who had just missed a game because of his knee injury. Again, everybody knew he was limited. The Redskins depended on balance then.
Right now, Griffin looks much more mobile than he did in Week 17 or Week 16 last year. He can do everything he could then and much more with rolling pockets and sprint outs and even a few called runs. So Morris does not have to run 33 times, but where did that 41-to-15 ratio come from last week?
With their season hanging by the possibility of an 0-4 thread, this is no time for either Shanahan to be forgetful or proud. The worse your defense — and theirs has set a yardage-allowed record for the first three weeks of a season — the more you need to burn clock to minimize opponents’ snaps.
Mike Shanahan, who has lived by the run, needs to hear this? Not possible. But the facts from the first three games are the facts.
The Redskins had two remarkable rookies last year: one flashy, breathtaking and talkative about himself; the other tough, quiet and the owner of an ancient beater of a car with its odometer rolled back.
It’s easy to fall in the trap of thinking RGIII created Morris last season and that, with Griffin not quite himself this year, Alfred can’t do very much at all.
What if there’s not as much difference between them as many think? What if, right now, with Griffin’s quarterback rating, at least by ESPN’s measuring tool, at a miserable 30th in the NFL, there’s little gap at all?
In the most important win in several Washington football seasons, the Dallas Cowboys knew Morris was coming last December, and they couldn’t stop him. Maybe this season it’s Morris who runs to set up RGIII, not the other way around. It’s worth a try. Because four-to-one Griffin-to-Morris is a disaster.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.