Nothing about Robert Griffin III’s transition from Heisman Trophy winning quarterback at Baylor University to heralded savior-in-the-making of the Washington Redskins has proceeded at a slow pace.
Just 11 days and three practices after he was drafted, Redskins coach Mike Shanahan named Griffin his starting quarterback for the 2012 season. Throughout the offseason, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur heaped a heavy study load on the quarterback to see how much he could absorb.
And in training camp, the Redskins coaches haven’t taken it easy on Griffin as they ready him for Thursday’s preseason opener at Buffalo, and the first regular season game in New Orleans on Sept. 9.
Ordering up as many pressures, exotic blitzes and coverages as defensive coordinator Jim Haslett can contrive, Mike and Kyle Shanahan have scripted practices to put Griffin in as many game-type situations as possible. Unlike the rookie mini-camp and training camps past, the Redskins haven’t run many 7-on-7 drills, which feature linebackers and defensive backs against tight ends and receivers, without linemen on either side of the ball. Instead, the bulk of practice is dedicated to 11-on-11 action with downs and distances kept and plays radioed into Griffin’s helmet by Kyle Shanahan.
On top of all that, Griffin is learning the pro game behind an increasingly battered offensive line. Starting right tackle Jammal Brown (hip) and starting left guard Kory Lichtensteiger (knee) are sidelined. And on Monday, starting right guard Chris Chester suffered a mild ankle sprain and could miss time as well.
The Redskins would obviously prefer to have healthy linemen protecting Griffin, but they believe the trials – both designed and unplanned -- should better prepare the young quarterback for the regular season.
“You try to simulate all game situations out there in practice,” Mike Shanahan explained. “That’s why you practice just like you’re in a game. Sometimes you might have a little bit more time than other times. Some times you’ve got to react a little bit quicker. Is it a three-, five-, seven-step drop? Is it first down? Second down? We try to put him through all those scenarios so on game day, he’s ready to play.”
One of the things the Redskins coaches want from Griffin is quicker reaction time. Even the healthiest of lines can only hold off the rush for so long, so Griffin must learn to quickly assess the defense, locate his receivers and deliver the ball.
At times during camp, the quarterback has been decisive. But there are times when Griffin is hesitant, apparently trying to determine whether to wait for a receiver to get open, throw the ball away, or tuck it and run.
Griffin acknowledges his need to get rid of the ball more quickly. But he also says he sometimes takes longer because he wants to ensure that he makes the right reads and throws in practice. He expects that will change come game time.
“I think sometimes in practice, I try to err on the side of not throwing the ball into coverage too much. . .because our defenders know exactly what’s coming at them every single day. They’ve known this offense a long time. I think in the games, things will open up a lot more and I’ll be able to get the ball out of my hands. It just comes with time. You have to know when to run, when not to run, when to get the ball out of your hands, and when to put the ball in the dirt.
Shanahan dismissed concerns over Griffin’s timing, saying it’s still early in the preseason and Griffin is indeed a rookie.
“This is the first week. We’ve practiced for one week,” Shanahan said. “Three years from now, he’ll probably have it. That’s usually how long it takes. It takes some time. Sometimes, depending on your supporting cast, it’s a little bit easier than other times, but you try not to throw all the pressure on the quarterback coming in.”
Griffin excels at throwing on the run, which the Redskins like to do a lot, with a variety of roll-outs and bootlegs. Gaining comfort on reads and passes off drop-backs poses a bit more of a challenge, so the Shanahans continue to put Griffin in those situations to help him grow.
“The toughest situation is drop-back, third down situations, when you’re trying not to get behind the eight ball,” Shanahan said. Griffin is being given “a lot of second-and-15, third-and-long situations that you’re trying to get a quarterback ready, and he’s only had so many reps to get a feel for the system, especially the first week. But we’re constantly going to try to put him in different situations to get him well-prepared for the game.”
Said Griffin: “I think it just helps me learn what coach is going to call in those situations first of all, so I can get my mind set on what I need to do, play-calling-wise.”
Griffin’s defensive teammates say the rookie already has begun improving. They rib him on the field if he chooses to run rather than pass, and they celebrate his interceptions – which haven’t been plentiful. But they also take pride in being able to assist his growth.
“He’s definitely improving, understanding,” cornerback Josh Wilson said. “He’s understanding that we’re trying to bait him into some things and he’s understanding when to tuck the ball, or when to throw it away or get a couple yards with his feet.
… We’re trying to give him the hardest look as possible. … This defense does so many different things, that if he sees another defense like this, it’ll be a rarity. When he gets out there game day, he’ll say, ‘this is nothing’.”