The Washington Redskins spent the offseason cobbling together an offensive system for rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III that is a blend of elements from various offensive approaches seen over the years in both college and pro football. And in the early stages of the season, perhaps the only thing more challenging than stopping the offense concocted by the Redskins for Griffin has been describing it— or, worse yet, naming it.
“I would say it’s a hybrid West Coast slash spread-option offense,” veteran Redskins offensive tackle Jordan Black said, making his attempt at a description.
And what about a name?
“We ran the West Coast before,” said Coach Mike Shanahan. “Well, this is the East Coast” offense.
Whatever it’s called, it’s working so far. The Redskins enter Sunday’s game in Tampa against the Buccaneers ranked first in the NFL in scoring offense, having averaged 33 points per outing in their first three games. They’re sixth in total offense, based on yards gained, and second in rushing offense, thanks in large part to Griffin’s contributions as a runner as well as a passer.
“Regardless of who we play,” Black said, “if we run this offense right, it’s pretty much unstoppable.”
The Redskins’ system has ingredients of the spread offense seen commonly in college football; the college-based option running game that puts the ball in Griffin’s hands to keep, hand off or pitch out; the pistol, a variation of the shotgun formation, also with its origins in the college game; the West Coast passing game so popular throughout the NFL; and the zone blocking scheme and stretch running plays that Shanahan-coached teams have employed with great success, as when the Denver Broncos were winning Super Bowls with Terrell Davis at tailback.
“It’s a blend of a lot of different things,” Shanahan said. “We tried to take a look at what Robert does best within our system and try to incorporate a few other variables that he enjoys and he feels confident in. And then you just keep on growing as you grow together.”
The system is derivative of many offenses but identical to none of them, at least not at all times.
“You study people, whether it’s college or whether it’s pro teams who do that type of stuff,” Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. “The pro tapes we’ve had — it’s been Carolina. It’s been Denver. Buffalo has done a little bit in the past. Tennessee did some back when they had [quarterback Vince Young]. So you go back and try to study all that stuff. Then you study the college stuff and you see schemes try to defend it.”
The Redskins incorporated what Griffin did in college at Baylor, where he was the Heisman Trophy winner last season. Black said he never has witnessed an NFL offense exactly like it.
“This is the first time, at least that I’ve seen it,” Black said. “I mean, the whole option part of our offense, obviously Carolina does it. Denver did some of it when they had [quarterback Tim] Tebow. But I don’t think the combination of this West Coast, bootleg, wide zone-type thing has ever existed. I could be wrong.”
NFL teams traditionally have shied from having their quarterbacks run option plays because defenders are so fast that, the thinking has been, the plays won’t be very effective and quarterbacks will absorb so many jarring hits that they’ll get hurt.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of knowing if it works or not,” Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said of pro teams running the option. “It’s that guy [the quarterback] is normally the highest-paid player on the team. And are owners willing to take that chance, their quarterback getting hit that much? But conceptually it’s a sound offense.”
Despite a roster of undersized players, the Navy football team has prospered thanks to the triple option, which is particularly difficult to prepare for given how few other schools use it with regularity. Over the last decade, the Midshipmen have not finished lower than sixth in the country in rushing. Stopping the option becomes that much more problematic with a quarterback who also is a threat to throw the ball, like Griffin.
“You’ve got to do something with that guy,” Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper said of Griffin running the option. “Open up the playbook. He’s such a great athlete, can throw the football, is a great passer and also a great runner. So you’ve got to take advantage of it. It’s good to see and hopefully [the Redskins] might call and ask for some tips.”
Perhaps the biggest liability of the option is the punishment that a quarterback absorbs, both as a ball carrier and pitch man. Former Navy quarterbacks Ricky Dobbs and Kriss Proctor missed games with injuries. Current starter Trey Miller hurt his ankle during this season’s opener against Notre Dame.
Griffin has had back-to-back games with more than 80 rushing yards. He also has taken his share of hits this season. He was roughed up enough sufficiently during last Sunday’s loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at FedEx Field that he spoke during the week about no longer pretending to have the ball — and exposing himself to potential hits — after he hands off on option plays.
“We want to keep him healthy,” Kyle Shanahan said. “Yet we still want him to compete like he does.”
Some observers have said they wonder if Griffin can stay healthy all season if he continues to carry the ball as often as he has in the Redskins’ first three games. Black said he isn’t fretting at this point about Griffin’s ability to remain unharmed while running this offense.
“Honestly, I’m not worried about it yet,” Black said. “I think that as Robert matures as a football player, he’s going to understand when situations come up where he can get out of being hit. It’s just going to take some time for him. I think right now he probably looks at getting hit like he did at Baylor. I mean, when he was at Baylor, he got hit a lot. He comes to the NFL, he’s probably getting hit less than he did at Baylor. So he’s thinking, ‘Oh, this is nice.’ It’s just going to be a learning process for him, a learning process for us. He’ll grow and he’ll work to eliminate some of the hits that are occurring.”
The Redskins say the option game will remain part of their offense but isn’t the main part of it.
Rookie tailback Alfred Morris is averaging 87.7 rushing yards per game. Going back to his Denver days, Shanahan’s teams usually have run the ball well, using zone blocking by the offensive linemen and stretch running plays in which the defense, as the name implies, is stretched toward the sideline and, the offense hopes, running lanes emerge.
Griffin’s passing, too, has been effective. He is the league’s sixth-rated passer even with his top wide receiver, Pierre Garcon, sidelined for the past two games because of a foot injury. The Redskins have retained elements of a West Coast passing game, a staple of many NFL offenses since legendary coach Bill Walsh used it to win three Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s, in their system for Griffin.
“We try to be able to attack a defense in a lot of different ways, throwing and passing,” guard Chris Chester said. “There’s different ways to go about that. With the running, we’ll utilize our stretch zone and then complement that with some of the stuff we do with Robert, have him move around and optioning, as well as some inside zone.”
It is a game of adjustments and re-adjustments. The Bengals spent the first half last Sunday looking like a team whose defense was ready for what the Redskins were doing offensively. But the Redskins made some adjustments in the second half. Griffin got the ball out of his hand quicker on some option plays. The Redskins put speedy wideout Brandon Banks on the receiving end of some of the option-play pitches. The offense got going but the defense failed to do its part and the Redskins lost, 38-31.
The Redskins say the first half of the Cincinnati game wasn’t a sign that the league is beginning to figure out what they’re doing. Rather, they say, they simply didn’t execute their offense very well and once they did, everything started clicking again.
“There’s no doubt they had a good game plan,” Black said. “But the reason that our offense was sluggish in the first half — I have to blame ourselves. I think that all the things that we did, it was self-imposed mistakes…. You look at the second half and you look at the first half, they’re polar opposites. If we can take that second half and do the same thing in the first half and put two halves of football together, I mean, it’s unstoppable.”
Gene Wang contributed to this report.