Robert Griffin III walked through the tunnel, his pants and back covered in dark grass stains, high-fiving a few of the remaining believers.
He wore no smile as he approached the locker room, and as has been the case eight times now this season, there wasn’t much for the Washington Redskins quarterback to smile about. This time, it was the San Francisco 49ers who defeated Washington, though it was worse than just a loss. It was a domination, Coach Mike Shanahan called it, and nothing showed it more than Griffin’s uniform. He was sacked four times, tackled or pushed out of bounds six times after rushes and hit again and again.
“I don’t know how many I took,” the quarterback said, and it would be understandable if he had either amnesia or preferred to block out one of the most one-sided games of his career.
After the 49ers’ 27-6, nationally televised victory, Shanahan said he had been told about no injuries to his quarterback, and Griffin himself mentioned nothing, either. But when the team reviews game film, coaches and players will see a quarterback taking a beating.
“He’s taken an unbelievable amount of hits,” ESPN “Monday Night Football” analyst Jon Gruden said during the broadcast. “I don’t know how he can survive this. I really don’t.”
At least physically, he emerged from another game unharmed. But as the Redskins’ season continues the slow march toward double-digit losses, a few months ago an unimaginable disappointment, Griffin’s physical health and surgically reconstructed knee seem only part of the equation.
After performances like this, when Griffin was hit often, hurried frequently and unable to hit open receivers, a deepening concern is about his confidence and whether his mental and emotional health are under weekly duress.
Griffin doesn’t throw passes like a confident quarterback. He doesn’t run toward openings like he did last season. Overthrows are common, and he seems to panic when rushed — particularly by a defense as fierce as the 49ers’. On Monday night, he attempted a deep pass toward Pierre Garcon, and instead it was San Francisco’s Donte Whitner who stepped in front of it.
Down and down Griffin’s effectiveness goes, and although he insisted afterward he remains the stoic, self-assured team leader, his play rarely shows anything but discomfort.
The Redskins, of course, hope this is temporary and a result of Griffin missing the offseason program following his right knee injury in a playoff game in January. Or that it’s the simple product of an NFL quarterback, no matter how impressive his rookie season, taking a step back in his second year.
“Nothing is automatic in the National Football League to that quarterback,” Shanahan said. “Every time he gets under center, takes a snap, he’s going to get better and better. . . . Every game is going to be a learning experience, but the thing that I was really impressed with is he really didn’t shy away from anything. He’ll stand in that pocket, look downfield, take the shots and he’ll compete.”
This is the deal the Redskins have made with themselves: live or die, sink or swim with Griffin, the organization’s face and its future. And with it they’ll endure the gasps each time he takes a hit. This isn’t a 245-pound Cam Newton or even a 230-pounder such as San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick. Griffin is listed at 217 pounds, and several times at FedEx Field on Monday, the crowd held its breath when Griffin was chased, when Griffin was hit, when Griffin stayed down on the turf as he did after his interception.
Then, yes, he pops back up and returns. His invincibility was impressive and perhaps inspiring last year. Now, after facing the reality of knee surgery and all that that has entailed, each of those sacks and rushes and hits is a threat. That much won’t change as long as Griffin is the quarterback, and who would blame him if he has begun to acknowledge that, too?
For now, he continues to put on a strong face. He chooses his words carefully, repeating things like how he isn’t giving up and neither is his team. His talking points are strong, even if his game is not.
“What am I supposed to do? Come up here and talk about how bad we are?” the quarterback said. “That’s not my job.”
He had removed his jersey by the time he stood at a lectern, trying to explain another loss and another poor performance. He said he still believes in his team, in himself, even if his play tells a far different story.
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