It’s time to put Kirk Cousins on the field, and to say so is not to slight Robert Griffin III, though he will certainly take it as an affront to his lordliness. It’s simply that a couple of pressureless Sundays might be the best thing for Griffin, give him a chance to exercise the brainchild in him, to study the game with that very good mind of his, instead of getting hit in the mouth from all sides.
Last season, he was a Day-Glo shock of talent, a solar flare, possessed of a purer energy than any quarterback we’ve ever seen. This season, he’s trying to learn his craft while hauling a knee brace the size of a stepladder. He’s also carrying around the weight of an outsize, ready-branded reputation that does him no favors. The result has not been a learning curve, but a U-turn.
A physical and mental break would be beneficial for both Griffin and the team in several ways, with very little downside at this point in a 3-8 season. First, and most important, it’s the best way to protect the investment in him. As a raw quarterback drafted out of Baylor, Griffin had three noticeable qualities: He was an incredibly accurate thrower; he had immense physical courage in or out of the pocket; and he was a great student who was eager to learn. Those assets are in danger if he keeps taking this kind of beating.
Listen to Archie Manning, who talked about raising prodigies in an interview earlier this season. “The best advice I try to give a young quarterback is, you need to know what you’re doing,” he says. “You need to know what you’re doing, because if you know where to go with the football, you can get rid of it and throw it, and you won’t get hit.”
The fact is, Griffin doesn’t know where to go with the football, so he gets hit a lot. He’s not yet capable of making enough good reads and decisions under center to protect himself in the Redskins’ system. They have one of the smallest offensive lines in the league, by design; they want light, quick linemen, in order to execute zone blocking for their running backs. It works. They led the league in rushing last season are doing it again this year. But lightness becomes a problem when pass blocking, and to neutralize their lack of size in those situations, they count heavily on the decision-making of the quarterback, to get the ball away quickly and certainly. That hasn’t happened. Griffin has been indecisive and uncertain.
That brings us to the second reason why some time on the bench would do him good: He’s not fully healthy, and that has affected his accuracy and efficiency. “I don’t think he should be playing,” the 49ers’ Ahmad Brooks said. “You can see it. Everybody can see it, everybody can see it.”
Yes, we can, and it’s not just that he lacks the superconductor speed of last season, it’s that his knee has affected his mechanics. Once a pinpoint passer, he has become more erratic, and sometimes he throws off his back foot. Playing hurt is screwing up his habits.
Again, let’s turn to the best example, and listen to what a Manning says. Two years ago, Peyton Manning was determined to rush back from surgery to repair a herniated disk and nerve damage in his neck. But in trying to get his arm back too soon, he messed up his motion. His friend and former college mentor David Cutcliffe finally told him, “You’re throwing injured and it’s not healthy. You’ll only hurt something else, and also, it’s bad for you to see yourself throwing poorly. So stop throwing.”
Manning listened: He took a three-month break during which he didn’t throw at all, and when he did come back, he started slowly, with five- and 10-yard passes.
Griffin has been in a similar rush. And it’s not only affected his throwing, it has thrown off the entire offense. At the root of the problems plaguing Washington’s offense this season is a simple fact: Griffin exerts too much centripetal force. He throbs with ambition on every play, and that is, of course, to his enormous credit. But his hurry to get back on the field meant the Washington offense became a hobbled and cobbled-together product this season. Instead of attacking and predatory, Griffin just looks frantic and forcing, and the result last Sunday was just 33 second-half yards.
A turn to Cousins might restore some equilibrium to the offense, and if nothing else, it would serve as a useful diagnostic in discerning how much of this season’s problems has been quarterback play. A stint on the sideline would allow Griffin to see the field better and, hopefully, recognize his blind spots and points of resistance. It might also teach him some patience.
Patience is the one quality Griffin seems to lack — but then so does everyone in the organization, though they talk about it a lot. Coach Mike Shanahan has consistently said it will take two or three years for Griffin to absorb NFL knowledge and reach the point where he is comfortable and won’t have to think, just react.
“The maturity will come,” he says. “But it doesn’t happen overnight. There’s a growing period. If you take a look at so many of these quarterbacks, all the Hall of Fame quarterbacks, they’ve had much tougher periods than we’ve gone through so far. It doesn’t happen overnight, but he’s got all the ability in the world to make that big jump, and you just have to be patient.”
So why not practice what he preaches? It’s worth raising the names of a few NFL quarterbacks who spent stretches as reserves while healthy: Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Steve Young, Jim Plunkett, Doug Williams, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, all Super Bowl winners. According to Shanahan, he hasn’t benched Griffin because he believes “repetition” and game experience is the best way for him to learn. But it also seems clear that Shanahan and Griffin have had a tense relationship this season, and benching him carries a very big risk for the coach: that Griffin would resent it to the point of rupturing the relationship altogether.
It’s a risk that Shanahan should take. It’s hard to see how repeating the same mistakes on a healing leg are helping Griffin, or the team. The best way to protect the enormous investment in him is to let the guy’s body heal, give him a rest from the pounding, and also the weekly interrogations about his progress and his leadership, while forcing him to become a classroom student again.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.