During the past week, after the Washington Redskins’ record fell to 0-2, there was a reckoning. The team had been dismantled in Green Bay, its defense shredded and its confidence on offense in shambles for the second consecutive week. And it was clear something had to change.
Quarterback Robert Griffin III, who could best be described through two games as careful, had run only nine times in losses to the Packers and the Philadelphia Eagles. His passes were off target, and his footwork was sloppy.
The worst part was that opponents no longer respected Griffin’s ability, skills amplified by versatility and misdirection, and therefore they didn’t respect the Redskins’ offense. And so it was Griffin himself who on Wednesday suggested the change: Whether it was comfortable or not, the preseason plan or not, safe or not — it was time to run again. Washington’s favorite superhero had been gone; now it was time to put the cape back on.
“It wasn’t an epiphany or anything,” he said three days after the Packers’ 38-20 win. “It was just a thought.”
In those two losses, Griffin appeared hesitant to scramble, and the execution of coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s offense underscored a perception that Griffin would no longer run as often. Washington has used its signature offense, the zone read, nine times in two games, and Griffin has run on just one of those. On each option play, a weapon that gashed and intimidated defenses last season, the ball has gone to running back Alfred Morris.
It renewed questions about Griffin’s health after knee ligament surgery in January, about his confidence, about whether he and his coaches had decided — in an effort to protect the quarterback’s health — to speed up the long-term plan of making him a primarily drop-back passer.
Whatever the rationale, it wasn’t working.
“I’m just looking at him and watching him, and it doesn’t look like the same guy,” said Tony Dungy, the NBC analyst and former NFL coach. “I just don’t see the dynamic athlete that we saw last year.”
Before the disappointing start, an emphasis on passing seemed understandable. Griffin damaged two ligaments in his right knee in January, his second severe knee injury in 31 / 2 years. Exposure to more hits — he averaged eight rushes per game as a rookie in 2012 and missed parts of three games with injuries — would mean increasing the odds of another injury.
Add to that the stakes of what Griffin means to Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan’s future and legacy — his contract expires after the 2014 season — and that Griffin’s father expressed concern about the hits his son was taking as a rusher, and changes to protect Griffin seemed inevitable.
More than that, it was part of the plan. Kyle Shanahan acknowledged last season that, in time, Griffin would be asked to run less often as his passing improved and knowledge of NFL defenses increased. But that, the younger Shanahan said, wouldn’t happen immediately. “It’s unnatural to ask a guy who hasn’t done it a lot in college to come in and be a pocket passer,” Shanahan said last November. “He’s got every tool. It just takes time.”
In Washington’s home opener against Philadelphia, Griffin dropped back to pass 15 times in the first half — most of them before the Eagles pulled away and forced the Redskins to play from a double-digit deficit. Griffin scrambled once, throwing the ball away. He would attempt 49 passes, 10 more than his previous career high.
Against the Packers, he rushed four times, averaging less than half a yard. When Green Bay’s pass rush gave Griffin opportunities to scramble, as he did so effectively last season, he instead forced throws, passing up the chances to run. He attempted 40 passes, completing 26 of them.
In his new role as a drop-back passer, the threat of running diminished if not eliminated, Griffin has thrown three interceptions (he threw five in 15 games last year) and has been sacked four times. His longest run is 12 yards; last year through two games he had a combined 20 rushes for 124 yards. The threat of Griffin breaking into the open field made him a more effective passer, Kyle Shanahan’s offense a more complex hazard for defenses, and Mike Shanahan’s team a formidable opponent.
For two weeks, that threat just hasn’t been there, though coaches said the reason was more that the score was lopsided, rather than any residual effects from the knee injury. Kyle Shanahan said he has designed the offense and called plays with the belief that Griffin is 100 percent. Griffin has insisted his knee is fine, and he was cleared to play weeks ago by team doctors.
“When you are told someone is healthy, and he seems healthy to you, then he’s healthy,” the offensive coordinator said. The difference, he said, is that on those few zone-read calls, Griffin hasn’t pulled the ball back and run it himself. Shanahan said he maintains confidence in Griffin as a runner, but nevertheless, Griffin hasn’t made the same plays that led to his being named rookie of the year in 2012.
Dungy said that in 2002, when running back Edgerrin James returned to the Indianapolis Colts after a knee injury, James insisted he was healthy, too. But James’s words were overshadowed by what Dungy saw on Sundays; the same explosive back was gone, and in his place was a hesitant runner with limited effectiveness.
“You think you’ve got the same guy,” the former coach said. “Those guys are so competitive, and they want to be out there. It’s a tough call from a coach’s standpoint: How much does he give you, how much does he bring, and is he taking a chance on getting hurt?”
Dungy said he has seen similarities in Griffin, and a rookie who seemed invincible last season has at least appeared considerably less superhuman.
“Now you see him run to the sideline, and defensive linemen are kind of getting the angle on him, and he’s throwing the ball away,” Dungy said. “It’s just — I don’t see the same guy. . . . I’d like to see that dynamic athlete back.”
Dungy said that, in his experience, a competitor’s urge to win is stronger than any instinct to shield himself from injury. And so maybe that’s why this week, Griffin acknowledged that his team was at a crossroads, staring down the possibility of an 0-3 start with questions lingering about his skills and health and confidence. He stood in front of reporters and suggested that something needed to change; that his team’s energy needed a boost. He has considered a more aggressive leadership style or hyping his team with a sideline rap.
None seemed as clear as this simple suggestion, reinforced by the smile Griffin flashed as he said it: “I can run more,” he said.
A few minutes later, he was asked if this is what he wants or simply what must happen for his team to pull out of an early-season funk.
“It’s not that I want to run more,” Griffin said. “I just feel like that’s what we need. If that’s what it takes for us to win games, then I’m willing to do that. There wasn’t anything that I was like, ‘I’m going to shy away from that,’ coming into the year. Like I said, if that’s going to spark us, then I’m willing to do it.”
It’s unknown whether that will be Washington’s missing piece; besides, the defense is a bigger reason for the team’s poor start. But with Griffin as the organization’s face, and that he as much as anyone expects him to save the day, it’s a start.
“We can keep asking these questions in different ways. They’re there. The plays are in,” Griffin said. “We’re ready to run them. I’m ready to run them.”