On the replay it looks so rhythmic — nearly a dozen individual instruments, each with individual assignments and tones, combining to make something beautiful.
Late in the first quarter on Dec. 3, Washington Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan called an option play in a critical home game against the New York Giants. With quarterback Robert Griffin III, the option — which gives Griffin a series of choices to make on the fly — is always a possibility. The problem for defenses is that Griffin’s talents and Shanahan’s creativity mean that alternatives are just as likely.
Shanahan’s offense relies on a group of players flawlessly executing a combination of roles, but its heartbeat is misdirection and deception — eyes here and the action over there — in football’s version of three-card monte. It is an offense that has captured the NFL’s attention.
“Any time you have set rules in place for a certain concept,” Shanahan said, “whether it’s a run play or a pass play, once your players get that concept down and the number counts and where you’re going and how to target people, then the motions and all the other stuff really just make it an illusion.”
Redskins wide receiver Josh Morgan said that each play can be run “30, 40, maybe 50 different ways,” depending on the formation, pre-snap motion and whether there will be a play fake — one of Shanahan’s favorite tools and one of Griffin’s most underrated skills.
Indeed, no NFL quarterback uses play-action — football speak for pretending to hand the ball off to a running back or receiver — more often than Griffin, who, according to statistics provided by Pro Football Focus, has preceded 39.6 percent of his pass plays with a fake. The Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson , another rookie quarterback who’ll lead his team in Sunday’s first-round playoff game at FedEx Field, is second at 36.2 percent.
“That’s our goal, to confuse them,” said Redskins fullback Darrel Young. “You see [opposing defenders] cursing each other out on the field.”
Against the Giants, the Redskins pulled out all the tricks. The winner, as it turned out, would take the NFC East title; the loser would miss the playoffs.
On second and two, Griffin lined up in the pistol formation and sent Morgan in motion from the slot to the backfield.
During offseason practices, confusion was king. Kyle Shanahan was installing a new offense, and regardless of how familiar he told them it would someday be, players felt trapped in a mental net.
Shanahan had studied zone-read offenses run by other NFL teams. He had added to the zone offense he’d learned from his father, Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan, and honed as a young coordinator with the Houston Texans. Kyle Shanahan spent long nights at the team facility, watching film and jotting notes — not about what the offenses were running, but how defenses were trying to stop it.
“What is the defense doing? What are they adjusting? What are they doing on film that the opposing team does the next week? And can this last?” Shanahan said earlier this season. “A lot of stuff you see, it won’t last. You’ve got to eventually put wrinkles off of it.”
This was the key to success, he said: “Making defenses defend everything.”
When he understood it, the next step was teaching Griffin.
“They didn’t baby me,” Griffin said. “They weren’t going to make it baby steps; they threw everything at me.”
From there, it was up to Griffin to mold Shanahan’s vision into reality. More variations means more moving parts means more opportunities for mistakes. It was common during offseason practice and training camp for players to execute the wrong assignment or to stop Griffin in the huddle and ask for clarification on what, exactly, he was telling them to do.
“It was like: ‘Hold up, what’d you say?’ ” Morgan said. “You know, ‘Say that one more time,’ or, ‘Hold up, on what?’ ”
Others learned to be patient. Misunderstanding a direction or assignment can spoil an entire play. “You have to listen to details,” Young said, “because one word changes everything.”
By the time the offense grasped one wrinkle, it was time to add another. Play-action this time, or with motion, or in the pistol formation instead of the shotgun, or even in a standard formation. The same plays, with subtleties altered here or there, were emphasized. Even weeks into the season, with losses in six of the Redskins’ first nine games, Shanahan was uncertain he hadn’t ventured too deep down the rabbit hole.
“You just have to keep preaching: ‘Hey, stay the course,’ ” he said.
In the meantime, the Redskins’ defense was enjoying the feast. Defenders competed over who would capitalize on the offense’s mistakes, and if a player missed a potential stop, he’d have his nose rubbed in it by teammates.
“You don’t want to get shook,” linebacker Perry Riley recalled. “You don’t want to bite on the wrong thing. Yeah, you’ll hear about it.”
Gradually, though, the offense learned to make it more difficult. Players used to Shanahan’s system during his first two years in Washington found that the elements were the same. Morgan, who signed with the Redskins as a free agent in 2012, leaned on his experience in the option at Virginia Tech and West Coast offense concepts learned during his first four NFL seasons in San Francisco.
“I just had to keep making it make sense to me,” Morgan said.
Griffin’s confidence in the huddle grew and his teammates’ confidence in him grew. There was no shame in asking Griffin to repeat something. They learned that the key wasn’t memorizing dozens of potential plays, only that there were dozens of slight variations on a handful of core plays. Once they figured out the simplicity of the offense, it was defenses that would be befuddled by complexity and trickery.
“We’ve gotten to the point now, he’s said it so much, and we’ve repped it so much,” Morgan said, “we can kind of finish his sentences.”
Griffin took the snap, planted his right foot and extended the ball toward running back Alfred Morris. “It all starts with that first step,” Redskins quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur said, as he watched video of a play from the third quarter of last Sunday’s win against the Dallas Cowboys.
Morris had taken a step to his left before running forward and raising his arms.
“The first thing you see,” LaFleur said of Griffin, “he gets on the right path.”
Dallas defenders leaned forward and moved to their right, reading Griffin’s path and reacting to it. Then the ball was gone. In about a second, the Cowboys found themselves off balance. As they hurried to correct themselves, Griffin planted and found wide receiver Pierre Garcon running across the middle for an 18-yard gain.
Griffin has mastered the play-action fake. His passer rating after play fakes is 116.2, more than 22 points better than when there’s no fake. Just as important, though, is that it’s another way to force defenders to guess. Of Morris’s 335 rushing attempts, more than 52 percent have come from the shotgun formation — again, the highest percentage in the league. Translation: When the Redskins show pass, they’re just as likely to run, and they lead the league in rushing with 169.3 yards per game.
“The stats don’t lie,” Griffin said.
LaFleur and Kyle Shanahan said Griffin started as a greenhorn in offseason practice but has honed his deception skills to the point that he is an expert.
LaFleur works with Griffin each day in individual drills to perfect his technique. Griffin obliges.
“He wants to be the best in everything he does,” LaFleur said.
Coaches and Redskins defenders routinely victimized by the rookie quarterback in practice said Griffin sells the fake by extending the ball in the same way he does when he hands it off. And that his footwork is identical, regardless of which play is actually coming — the path, as LaFleur called it, to the “mesh,” where Griffin meets the running back. And that he never stops running, which forces defenders to question their eyes. Is the ace really in the middle, as it appeared, or was it again lost amid the quickness and sleight of hand? Commit to the run, and yes, there’s another king; the ace was on the right.
“When he doesn’t have the ball, he’s running like he does,” Redskins defensive lineman Kedric Golston said. “And the running back is running like he does, and the receivers are doing everything like they have the ball.”
A moment later, he shook his head. “It’s stressful,” Golston said. “It really is.”
That’s the idea.
On Dec. 3 against the Giants, Morgan stopped in the backfield. A moment later, Griffin took the snap from the pistol formation and faked to Morris, holding the ball until the last instant. Offensive linemen blocked as if Morris would be running up the middle. Two of New York’s three linebackers raced to tackle Morris; by then, Griffin was already running to his left.
“If you’re not on top of your game, he’s already turned the corner on you,” Riley said.
All but two defenders had been neutralized by the formation, pre-snap movement and the fake to Morris. Young hurried over to block defensive end Osi Umenyiora and then linebacker Michael Boley. He didn’t see Griffin sprint past Umenyiora and then cut back toward the middle of the field.
“I don’t know what happens half the time,” Young said. “I just do my job; I look when the whistle blows.”
Morgan, meanwhile, was yelling for Griffin to lateral the ball.
“Yelling, ‘Pitch it!’ the whole time,” Morgan recalled.
Griffin ran 16 yards before colliding with Giants defensive back Stevie Brown. The ball popped upward, landing in Morgan’s hands — “about time,” he remembered thinking — and Morgan ran past a final group of stunned defenders and into the end zone.
It was chaos, for everyone not wearing burgundy. It has been like this for seven weeks, maybe a few more.
“It was really supposed to happen that way,” Morgan said with a smile.
When you’re in on the trick’s secrets, nothing surprises you any more.
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