When Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III tucks the football and commits to running with it, anything can happen, almost all of the possibilities breathtaking for teammates, fans, and opponents. Griffin’s runs last season resulted in game-breaking touchdowns, key first downs — and injuries.
As Griffin and the Redskins enter his second NFL training camp, this one following surgery to repair ligaments in his right knee, key questions involve how best to maximize Griffin’s unique skill set and also keep him healthy. Griffin and his coaches agree the responsibility is shared, lying in which plays are called and in the decisions he makes after the snap.
To understand how Griffin and the Redskins can help reduce the hits, it’s best to remember how 2012 unfolded. Griffin was hit 49 times out of 70 plays designed to use his ability to run — either zone-read options or quarterback keepers. Compare that to 18 hits on 50 scrambles beyond the line of scrimmage on passing plays and 85 hits on 423 plays when in the pocket or behind the line of scrimmage.
“I think you can win outside the pocket. You’ve just got to be smart about it,” Griffin said on Wednesday. “And that’s what I’ve learned over the past six months about myself and what we need to do to win. Maybe that’s keeping me in the pocket a little bit more. Maybe that’s throwing the ball away a little bit more.”
Veteran quarterback Rex Grossman summed it up succinctly.
“The goal [for Griffin] is to be an effective runner, like Aaron Rodgers is an effective runner,” Grossman said, “with some designed runs on top of that.”
The zone-read option — a play from which Griffin can hand off, keep the ball or pass, based on how the defense reacts — has been a specific subject of conversation. Last season, Griffin used the play particularly effectively, averaging 16.4 yards per completion after faking a handoff and 8.2 yards per carry when he ran. But is it worth the risk to Griffin’s health?
Redskins coaches say they will not abandon the play, maintaining it will remain effective even if Griffin elects to run himself less often. Griffin kept the ball on zone-read plays 43 times and was hit on 26 of those. But coaches further believe the fakes involved in those plays prevent defenders from teeing up a target, because they must be wary of the ball going elsewhere.
“The zone-read probably gave Robert more time in the pocket than anything else you can do,” Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said. “Where Robert did get hurt was dropping back and doing a couple of scrambles. That’s probably one of the toughest situations for a quarterback is to drop back, look downfield, know when to scramble, know when to slide. It’s just tough. I think every year you get better and better. But we’re going to try to protect Robert as much as we can. We’re going to let him do the things that we think he does the best and hopefully it will be as productive.”
When blocked correctly, the zone-read option should allow Griffin to escape big hits by sliding safely or by running out of bounds.
On average, the play gives Griffin more time in the pocket because it keeps defenders off balance. Linebackers often would take 1.9 seconds from the first fake before dropping into coverage. By comparison, a regular play-action pass would, at most, freeze the linebacker for 1.4 seconds.
The Redskins did cut back on one play in which Griffin routinely was hit hard: the quarterback draw. They ran Griffin on 11 draws in the first nine games before the bye week, but none in the final eight. Griffin gained 75 yards and scored two touchdowns on draws, but it took a toll: He was hit on all but one of those runs, and by at least two defenders on four of them.
The data suggests Griffin learned to protect himself as last season progressed. After suffering a concussion in Week 5 against Atlanta, Griffin improved his decision-making when on the run. In his first five games, he was hit nine times on 16 scrambles; in his final 11 games, he was hit nine times on 34 scrambles. Also, he ran out of bounds on 14 of his next 17 scrambles after the concussion, compared to eight times in his first 16 such runs before the injury.
The play on which he suffered the concussion illustrated another part of his learning curve. As Griffin looked over the middle before he was under any duress, wide receiver Josh Morgan got open behind the linebackers in the middle of the end zone. But Griffin didn’t see him, took off running to his right — and ended up with a concussion.
As one defensive coordinator said privately last season, Griffin knew he could rely on his legs. This season, with more experience as a passer, that play could have a much different ending.
Even in the latter part of last season, Griffin improved as a passer inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. He threw eight touchdown passes in his final seven games inside the 20 and completed nine of 13 passes for 57 yards. Compare that to 13 of 26 completions for 55 yards and two scores in the first nine games.
That improvement meant fewer runs: Griffin carried on just three designed red-zone runs in his seven games after the bye week, compared to 13 beforehand. That made a difference in terms of hits. On his 13 red-zone passes in the final seven games, Griffin was hit just twice. Opponents began opting for more man-to-man coverage to be better positioned should Griffin run the ball. That meant more open receivers.
Similarly, as the season unfolded, Griffin scrambled less on third down, from 11 times in the first nine games to five in his final seven. He avoided sacks and other pressure by running and getting out of bounds, too. Quicker reads also helped. Grossman said not hitting open targets or hesitating too much wasn’t an issue.
“He was ahead of the game as a rookie as far as that’s concerned,” Grossman said. “All that has to do with how do you feel at that instant you have to make that decision.”
As for being on the run, Griffin needs to keep his eyes upfield and look as if he might pass more consistently. Griffin did that a couple times last season, keeping defenders guessing and once in a while dumping off a pass on the go.
This wasn’t always the case. Against Tampa Bay for example, Griffin took off running and gained 15 yards on a late drive leading to a winning field goal — a celebrated play. However, on that play, Griffin tucked the ball and stopped looking downfield while he was still 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage — and he missed a wide-open Santana Moss for what would have been an easy touchdown. Griffin’s scramble put the Redskins in good field position, but he took a jarring hit at the end of the play.
Limiting the hits Griffin takes doesn’t fall entriely on him, but there are facets he can control. As he improves as a passer, the hits should diminish — and the need for him to run will as well.
After the season, one teammate predicted Griffin’s completion percentage might go down this season simply because he’ll be more inclined to throw the ball away rather than try to make something out of nothing. That would result in fewer yards, but also less wear and tear.
For Griffin to have the sort of career to which he aspires — and which the Redskins and their fans now expect — staying healthy for the next play is more important than getting the most he can out of the current one.
“You come back as if you were never hurt,” Griffin said in the spring, “because that is the only way you can play. You don’t play the game afraid to get hurt. You play the game like you are supposed to be invincible while at the same time being smart and sliding and all of that other stuff.”
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