TAMPA — One game won’t end the debate about whether the Washington Redskins are correctly using rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. But it’s clear the Redskins have enormous potential on offense because of their emerging young star.
In only his fourth NFL game, Griffin displayed franchise-quarterback poise Sunday while leading the Redskins to a 24-22 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With his headset malfunctioning, Griffin could not communicate electronically with the coaching staff on the final, game-winning drive. Still, he kept cool and called all the plays.
Impressive early as he directed Washington to an 18-point, first-half lead, Griffin was even better in the closing moments of the fourth quarter after Tampa Bay took a one-point lead on a field goal. Griffin took command of the huddle when the Redskins began at their 20-yard line with 1 minute 42 seconds remaining to play. On the first four plays of the game-winning drive, he completed three passes to three receivers for 39 yards and scrambled for another 15-yard gain.
Place kicker Billy Cundiff — who missed his first three field goal attempts — connected on a 41-yarder with three seconds to play. Although Cundiff’s kick provided the difference for the Redskins, who evened their record at 2-2 after consecutive losses, Griffin’s strong performance made the upbeat closing possible.
Griffin’s sound decision-making and accuracy (he completed 74 percent of his passes) got the Redskins started. Coach Mike Shanahan and his son, Kyle, Washington’s play-caller, were determined to do a better job of limited Griffin’s exposure to unnecessary hits while also achieving the creativity on offense they want. On Sunday, they succeeded.
With Tampa Bay’s defense struggling to contain Griffin’s passing (323 yards, 102.4 passer rating), rookie running back Alfred Morris benefited from the problems Griffin presents to opposing defenses by having his first 100-yard rushing game. Morris’s big game also helped Griffin, who was pounded on designed running plays against Cincinnati a week ago, but ran only occasionally by design against Tampa Bay.
The Redskins’ beleaguered secondary showed improvement at times in the first half. The defensive backfield, however, collapsed again as the Redskins almost squandered their big lead.
Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett hasn’t found the right combination of cornerbacks and safeties. It’s beginning to look like the group is as good as it will be, which isn’t close to being good enough.
Griffin, though, is very good. And on Sunday, the Shanahans’ coaching helped to make him even a little better. Let’s examine what they did:
Redskins fans expressed alarm after watching Griffin get whacked like a piñata during the 38-31 loss to the Bengals in Week 3. The Bengals’ defensive ends, in particular, punished Griffin throughout the game.
After the Shanahans made some halftime adjustments in personnel and play-calling, the Bengals were less aggressive in attacking Griffin in the second half of that game. The Shanahans made even more significant changes against Tampa Bay.
Griffin usually started in the shotgun formation in the first three games. Griffin won the Heisman Trophy while working from the shotgun at Baylor, and the Shanahans want him to be comfortable.
During the first half Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, however, Griffin began many formations under center. The significance was that teams have prepared for the Redskins to work almost exclusively from the shotgun.
Defensive coordinators construct their game plans on what tendencies opponents show on film. By throwing a change-up in Week 4, the Shanahans made Tampa Bay adjust to them. That’s what coaches strive for when they’re seeking an advantage.
Early in the game, Morris enjoyed success on inside running plays that began with Griffin under center. The Buccaneers’ linebackers and safeties repeatedly seemed hesitant in run support with the Redskins in a formation they had rarely used.
As evidence of his progress, Griffin appeared at ease passing after starting under center. He’s becoming adept (through his body language and quick decisions) at misleading safeties about where he intends to pass the ball.
Sophisticated quarterback option plays. End-around runs after shifting into a modified quarterback shotgun formation called the “pistol.” Shotgun misdirection calls.
The Shanahans’ offensive creativity is prompting Redskins fans to expand their football vocabulary. They are trying to construct the most creative offense in NFL history.
If the Shanahans realize their vision, they’ll design an offense that draws from, well, almost every scheme and system that has worked. And Griffin is the foundation for whatever they can dream up.
Although the Redskins’ offense thus far has been heavy on the quarterback option, the Shanahans are not interested in relying only on that approach. The offense is evolving because of Griffin’s running ability. The next step is more variety, which the Redskins began to show against the Buccaneers.
Speedy wide receiver Brandon Banks is playing a larger role. The Shanahans enjoy using him on misdirection plays that end up with Griffin attempting medium to deep passes. On one play Sunday, Banks received a lateral, tossed it back to Griffin, who then completed a 30-yard pass downfield.
There are so many possibilities on offense with a quarterback like Griffin. The Shanahans unveiled the option plays first to frustrate opponents. After the Bengals made strides in slowing and hitting Griffin, they relied on a more traditional two-back, I- formation game plan against Tampa Bay. It worked.
For anyone who thinks the Shanahans are throwing too much at Griffin, Mike and Kyle believe there’s nothing Griffin can’t handle, In deciding to scale back on Griffin’s designed runs against Tampa Bay (he only had three), the Shanahans tacitly acknowledged Griffin was being hit too much. If the Shanahans can strike the right balance on designed runs and Griffin continues to pick it all up, they’ll all be pointed in a winning direction.
There’s no doubt that the Redskins’ awful pass defense is a major concern. The Buccaneers produced 293 net yards passing — and they had one of the NFL’s least-productive passing attacks entering the game. It’s obvious, though, the Redskins have a quarterback who can do it all. And in the NFL, there’s nothing more important than that.
For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.
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