So much for Jay Gruden having a long head coaching honeymoon. He has yet to lead the Washington Redskins in a regular season game, but Gruden already is facing his first major challenge thanks to Robert Griffin III’s poor performance.
With Washington kicking off the regular season against the Houston Texans in less than two weeks, its franchise quarterback appears incapable of engineering a touchdown drive, let alone a victory. Although Gruden deserves high marks for his steady approach with Griffin, whom he’s attempting to help become primarily a pocket passer, the evidence suggests it may be time for Gruden to tweak his plan.
In 10 drives spanning three preseason games, Griffin, who seemed befuddled in Saturday’s 23-17 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, failed to guide the first-team offense into the end zone. Griffin has appeared uncomfortable in the pocket, held the ball too long and displayed inconsistent mechanics, coaches on other teams say. Gruden agrees.
“It’s a little bit of everything,” he said.
Griffin’s ineffectiveness is part of the reason Gruden is waffling about whether the team’s top offensive starters will play in Thursday’s final preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Griffin could use the work. Regardless of whether Griffin plays, Gruden should reduce the weight on the struggling player’s shoulders before the opener.
Under Gruden, Griffin has freedom to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage. Griffin pushed for a bigger role in the offense and got what he wanted. Unfortunately for Griffin, the increased workload may be part of his problem.
Last season, Griffin generally played well while working within the confines of rigid instructions, former Washington coaches told me. But when Griffin improvised, he often made inexplicable decisions. In the preseason, the team’s most important player has had several head-scratchers.
Reducing some of Griffin’s pre-snap responsibility would give him less to think about, and he’s clearly thinking too much. Remember: Griffin is playing his first season in a new offense, which requires him to regularly make quicker decisions than he did in his first two seasons. Factor in that Griffin is attempting to make a difficult transition — used to being on the move, he’s now trying to stay put — and it would be surprising if his head wasn’t spinning.
Undeterred by his problems, Griffin remains confident he possesses what it takes to become a productive pocket passer and “put up some big numbers and do some great things,” he said. Griffin is not the type to ask for assistance. Anyone who watched Griffin drag his damaged right leg around FedEx Field in the playoffs as a rookie is aware of that. Gruden must show who’s in charge — by taking things off Griffin’s plate.
Knowing Griffin, he would bristle at the mere suggestion of being asked to do less. Likely, Griffin would perceive such a move as a step backward. For someone who hasn’t even acknowledged he has played poorly in the preseason, why would Griffin accept a significant change in plans?
There’s Griffin’s view, however, and then there’s reality. No one needs to tell Gruden, formerly an accomplished offensive coordinator, that Griffin needs help.
That brings me to Washington’s playbook: Gruden, people in the organization say, has done a good job of tailoring plays to Griffin’s skill-set, though you couldn’t tell. Once Gruden utilizes the full playbook and specifically attacks the Texans’ perceived weaknesses in a complete game plan, Griffin will play better, his supporters hope. Perhaps.
But the things Griffin has done poorly won’t necessarily improve just because Gruden’s approach inevitably changes once the games matter. Throughout the preseason, Washington’s play has been based on concepts “that should be successful,” Gruden said. “They should be more successful than they” have been.
That’s why Gruden has to stick with them. On social media, many Washington fans have called for Gruden to bring back the designed running plays that helped Griffin during his spectacular rookie season.
It wouldn’t be shocking if Gruden called a few designed runs against Houston. Those plays could help loosen up the defense. For Griffin, they just won’t be the key to achieving long-term success. Being able to function effectively in the pocket will be. Gruden is leading Griffin along the right path. They shouldn’t turn back now.
“He’s got to let some things fly,” Gruden said. “He’s just a little bit hesitant right now, which is normal with some new concepts . . . but he’s got to do it. Some of these route combinations are new to him. He’s got to trust the fact that he’s got to believe what he sees.
“He’s got to keep his eyes on the right spot, go through his progressions, make his decisions and get the ball out of his hands. It will come. He’s got the ability to do it; he’s got the smarts to do it; [he wants] to do it. He’s just got to do it.”
Facing a challenging situation, Washington’s new coach also must respond well. That’s what he was hired to do.
For more by Jason Reid, see washingtonpost.com/reid.