RICHMOND — Upon being asked a seventh question about quarterback Robert Griffin III in a 20-minute span, Washington Redskins Coach Jay Gruden cautioned reporters on the eve of training camp “not to make it so much about Robert but make it about the Redskins.”
To the thousands of fans who streamed through the gates on a rainy Thursday morning, many of whom had lined up Wednesday night, Griffin was the lone story line as camp opened.
Entire families sported jerseys bearing Griffin’s No. 10 jersey. They chanted “R-G-3! R-G-3!” when the franchise quarterback trotted onto the rain-soaked field. And they positioned themselves strategically to gauge his mobility, explosiveness, confidence and command firsthand.
What they saw was a quarterback unencumbered by the knee brace he wore all last season — from the season-opening loss to Philadelphia to his benching following the Dec. 8 loss to Kansas City.
They saw a 24-year-old who looked relaxed and happy as he tossed the ball to tight end Jordan Reed before practice as others stretched.
And they saw a player who, by his own account and those of teammates, is far more at ease now that he’s rid of a coach and offensive coordinator whose schemes, he felt, didn’t take full advantage of his strengths.
“It’s really a good thing to have two coaches who believe in you,” Griffin said following a two-hour practice that was far from crisp, adding that Gruden and offensive coordinator Sean McVay were doing “a great job.”
“They’ve given me a lot on my shoulders in that quarterback room. I cherish that. You want to be asked to do more — or just to be asked to do the bare minimum.”
Griffin was asked to do nothing at all as Mike Shanahan’s coaching tenure came to an end last December. The quarterback had started the season without the benefit of training camp or a single preseason snap, his right knee still tender from reconstructive surgery nine months earlier.
With his mobility compromised and mechanics understandably rusty when the regular season opened, he struggled to complete his throws and, at times, stay upright against blitz-happy defenses. After compiling a 3-10 record, he was benched, and the Redskins didn’t win another game.
If injury and an ill-fitting system were what held Griffin back in his sophomore season, they are gone — not available as excuses, legitimate or otherwise, as Griffin launches into his third season and the challenge of reclaiming the Redskins’ winning tradition.
All that remains is learning the fine points of Gruden’s offense, developing a rapport with his bulked-up receiving corps and, as the coach put it, “reps, reps, reps.”
“I think we all know in this room it’s beneficial to be out there at practice and not have to worry about an injury,” Griffin told reporters.
The quarterback was far from sharp Thursday.
On one series, he would have been sacked on the opening play. A false start followed. He executed a handoff, then fired a ball to DeSean Jackson, whose speed he’s still learning to read, that was nearly intercepted by Brandon Meriweather.
Receivers struggled, too.
“They’re dropping more than they’re catching!” groused one fan on the sideline.
“We weren’t as efficient as we wanted to be all around, including myself,” Griffin said. “So it’s a good thing to have to work through rain and throw those wet footballs and have to catch those wet footballs and have to work on that quarterback-center exchange.”
Gruden didn’t sugarcoat the proceedings.
“Robert was a little erratic,” Gruden said. “The balls were really wet early on and didn’t come out of his hands. . . . He’ll be the first to tell you he needs to improve, and I’ll be the second to tell you he needs to improve.”
The Redskins’ franchise quarterback has 19 more days of training camp to do just that. And for the fans who showed up Thursday, the privilege of watching his progression was its own reward.
In many fans’ eyes, Griffin has a magnetism that doesn’t hinge on whether his quarterback rating is 102.4, as it was his brilliant rookie season, or 82.2, as it was his sophomore slump.
And he has a way of drawing attention to himself, if not courting it outright. On Thursday, it was a variant on his signature mismatch look, with Griffin sporting one black cleat and one white, as well as one black legging and one white.
“It’s called the yin and the yang,” Griffin explained. “White and black, working together. We’re all brothers; we’re doing it together.”
As cornerback DeAngelo Hall sees it, Griffin has come into his own.
“From the moment Jay came in here, Robert kind of knew that Jay wanted him. He wanted to coach him; he felt he would be special,” Hall said. “We all see that.
“I think he’s becoming a pro. This’ll be his third year. He has had his highs; he had had lows. . . . This is a guy who understands what it takes to be a quarterback in the National Football League. He understands he’s going to have a microscope on his life 24/7. He relishes that.”