Since the football season began, the Washington Redskins have walked a fine line between utilizing the full range of rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III’s skills and keeping him upright, unharmed and in the lineup.
That delicate balancing act will be viewed in a different light Sunday, when the Redskins play the Minnesota Vikings at FedEx Field. Griffin spent the past week recovering from the concussion he suffered during last week’s loss to the Atlanta Falcons in his fifth NFL game.
Griffin practiced during the week after receiving medical clearance to do so, and the team’s coaches said that, barring a recurrence of his concussion symptoms, they expected him to play against the Vikings.
The team also spent the week readying rookie backup Kirk Cousins and third-stringer Rex Grossman in case Griffin suffered a setback. But if Griffin indeed starts Sunday, the game will be the first test of how differently Griffin might play and how differently the Redskins might use him.
“He’s a smart guy,” Redskins linebacker London Fletcher said. “He understands. He knows his value to this football team and how important it is to have him out there playing.”
Former NFL coach Dan Reeves said the burden of safeguarding Griffin falls in large part to the young quarterback himself.
“I think he’ll learn as he goes along,” Reeves said in a telephone interview. “He’ll learn how to protect himself. There’s a time to be a competitor. And there’s a time not to take people on. Sometimes you have to watch yourself.”
Reeves, who was Michael Vick’s first NFL coach with the Falcons, said a team also must do its part and learn as it goes along when it has a quarterback, like Vick or Griffin, who is a dynamic runner along with being a threat as a passer.
“He’s so talented,” Reeves said. “As a coach, you want to use all those things. But you also have to protect him. It’s a learning process. He’s going to get enough chances to run with the ball just off the passing plays that you call, when things break down, even without having a lot of designed runs for him. It’s difficult as a coach when you have a player with so many talents. You want to use them all. But you have to have an attitude where you step back and say, ‘We have to ease up here to keep him healthy.’ It’s a learning process for both.”
Reeves said the Redskins have done a good job of crafting an offensive system to get the most out of Griffin’s talents. The Redskins blended elements of tactics associated with the college version of the sport, such as the spread offense and the triple-option running game, with more conventional NFL strategies to assemble an offensive system for Griffin that has befuddled opposing defenses at times.
The Redskins are ranked seventh in the league in total offense, based on yards gained, and eighth in scoring. Griffin has thrown the ball efficiently and has run the ball well when needed, with four rushing touchdowns to go with his four touchdown passes in five games.
Griffin’s running was being curtailed even before he got hurt. He had a total of 33 rushing attempts in the Redskins’ first three games, including 13 in a loss at home Sept. 23 to the Cincinnati Bengals. The Redskins seemed to dial back the college-like offensive looks during a Sept. 30 triumph in Tampa, when Griffin had eight rushing attempts.
The game in which Griffin suffered his concussion was the game he seemingly was put at the least risk. Griffin had only one rushing attempt against the Falcons. He was hurt on a hit near the sideline as he scrambled with the ball, trying to buy himself some time to look for a receiver in the end zone.
“If you look at the play last week where he got concussed, it could have very easily been a ball that just got thrown away,” Redskins guard Chris Chester said. “Robert, he’s a young guy and he’s figuring out how to play the game, how to manage the game. I think it’ll be easy. I don’t think we’ll have to change much. He’s just going to have to understand and manage the game a little bit better.”
The return-to-play decisions about Griffin are being made by doctors rather than by the Redskins’ coaching staff, under NFL guidelines. Griffin practiced Wednesday only after being cleared by a team physician and an independent neurological consultant, as league rules require. He first underwent neuropsychological testing and demonstrated that he could exercise at game-like intensity without a recurrence of concussion symptoms, and doctors continued to evaluate him throughout the week. The Redskins cautioned that any setback, even on Saturday or early Sunday, still could result in Griffin not playing against the Vikings.
Griffin said at midweek that he wouldn’t lose his aggressiveness as a player but he would be smarter when circumstances called for it, putting himself at less risk. He said he ran out of bounds and feigned a slide during Wednesday’s practice — Griffin was practicing then on a non-contact basis but quarterbacks aren’t hit during NFL practices as a general rule, anyway — and that drew an ovation from his teammates.
But the Redskins aren’t pledging to overhaul their offense. Or at least they aren’t broadcasting that to future opponents. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said Thursday that “if he’s cleared and he’s healthy, then you go into it the same way you always do,” adding that he never wanted Griffin to run with the ball too often even before the concussion.
“I feel if I went into a game thinking I had to call a different game because if he got hit he was going to get hurt, then he shouldn’t be playing,” Shanahan said. “If he’s cleared, he’s cleared. He’s okay. That’s my assumption.”
The issue, it seems, isn’t going away.
“It’s the same idea that has always been talked about with him being a quarterback,” Redskins fullback Darrel Young said. “He’s a running quarterback. He’s fair game to the defense. He’ll protect himself. He’ll get better with it. He’ll learn that. I’m not saying guys in the NFL hit harder. But they pursue faster. So that’s the difference between college and the NFL, the speed of the game.
“He’ll adjust. He’s still a rookie. He’s still learning a lot of things. We all are. They’re putting him in the best situation possible. He’s probably helping them, too, just in terms of what he thinks on things. It goes either way. I think he’s doing a great job. The coaches are doing a great job with him. . . . He’s going to take a hit. You can stand in the pocket — you’re going to be mad if he gets hit [there] the way he does on the option. It’s football.”