Robert Griffin III is off to a slow start in his bid to become primarily a pocket passer, and his frequently questionable judgment — both in and out of the pocket — has stirred concern on the coaching staff. It’s prompted Coach Jay Gruden to take a pump-the-brakes approach in his first season leading the Washington Redskins. Privately, some team officials concede that the task Griffin is attempting to complete is much harder than they initially envisioned and likely could take more than just this one season to complete.
The good news for the Redskins is that Gruden admires Griffin’s perseverance. Unlike last season under Mike and Kyle Shanahan, Griffin now is a willing pupil who realizes he needs his teacher’s help. And the coaching staff remains committed to Griffin for the long haul.
“He’s not a finished product yet by any stretch of the imagination, but he will get there,” Gruden said this past week. “I know one thing that if you keep telling Robert he can’t do something, he’s going to do it and he’s going to want to do it and he’ll get there.”
Gruden, however, expects a lot from starting quarterbacks. Griffin won’t be able to provide it until he thinks much more consistently on the field. Daily in their work together, Gruden reinforces that “decisions have to be consistent at the quarterback position, especially when games are tight. When the level of competition is so equal amongst the 32 teams, one mistake here can cost you. . . . You can’t have [many] if you expect to win in the NFL.”
Since he was hired in January, Gruden has spent much of his time tutoring Griffin on the mental aspects of becoming a successful pocket passer. Until this season, Griffin had never been asked to run a traditional, pro-style offense. Gruden isn’t merely teaching Griffin a new way to play. He’s essentially teaching him a new position.
Griffin possesses the arm strength to make any throw. Despite two major knee surgeries, he remains a gifted athlete. In the film room, Griffin shows he has the smarts to get the job done. But even with all that going for him, Griffin is, for lack of a better term, a project.
That was obvious throughout his rough preseason outing against the Baltimore Ravens. In an important dress rehearsal for starters, Griffin committed a number of glaring mistakes: running out of bounds for a loss when a better option was available, throwing an interception on a check-down to running back Alfred Morris while tight end Jordan Reed sprinted up the field uncovered.
Griffin won’t be the last NFL quarterback to miss an open receiver. Even future Hall of Famers Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees stub their toes. But the frequency of Griffin’s miscues has been way too high for Gruden, whose version of the West Coast offense is more complex than anything Griffin has played in previously.
In Washington’s regular-season opener at Houston last weekend, the game plan revealed, in part, Gruden’s lack of trust in Griffin. Avoiding the longer-developing pass plays that gave Griffin problems in training camp and the preseason, Gruden instead relied on the running game and got the ball out of Griffin’s hands quickly. Based on Gruden’s strategy — and the Texans’ defensive backs playing soft in coverage — the statistics indicated that Griffin played well: He completed 78.4 percent of his 37 passes and had an impressive 96.7 passer rating.
Griffin displayed better decisiveness with the ball, which has been an increased point of emphasis in practice since the Baltimore debacle. Generally, he appeared to be more confident in the pocket than he had been in a long time. “He did some good things,” Gruden said.
But statistics don’t tell the whole story, and Griffin did more bad things in the context of what Gruden wanted, as the Redskins were undone by major gaffes in a 17-6 road loss.
On third and three from Washington’s 31-yard line late in the opening quarter, wide receiver Andre Roberts broke from coverage on a long route and was alone for some time as he approached the right sideline. By the time Griffin saw him, the ball wound up sailing out of bounds. Roberts tried to toe the line, but officials ruled he stepped out.
“That’s a 40-yard gain that you end up punting,” Gruden said. “Those are plays we need to take advantage of . . . if we are really going to take that next step.”
What Griffin lacks most can be summed up in two words: pocket presence. That’s the ability of a quarterback to react well under duress. In addition to that play, Griffin reinforced Gruden’s worst fears by taking two costly sacks and also losing a fumble inside the Texans’ 10-yard line.
“We took a sack at the 34-yard line when we were in field-goal range. Didn’t have much protection, but we’ve got to throw it away,” Gruden said. “We took a sack on a screen pass in a two-minute drill. That can’t happen.”
Part of Gruden’s problem in gauging Griffin’s development is that Griffin has never been consistent in practice. Even during his rookie-of-the-year season, coaches often had no idea what to expect from Griffin on game day. Factor in an offensive line much better at run blocking than pass protection, and the week-to-week forecast gets only murkier.
Despite those issues, Gruden already is further along than his predecessor was in molding Griffin into a productive pocket passer. Gruden has provided him with a road map and convinced him to follow it.
What’s not clear is where they’re headed and how long it will take to get there.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.