Consequences arrive on their own schedule, not ours. When Robert Griffin III came back from major knee surgery in eight months and was pronounced “healed” — fast, mobile and ready to play, though in a knee brace — Washington thought that its beloved NFL team might have dodged the bullet that it shot at itself in January in the playoffs.
Maybe Coach Mike Shanahan’s lousy decision to keep Griffin in against Seattle until he broke, or Griffin’s foolish pride to ask, almost demand, to play, or Dr. James Andrews’s role as Doc Irrelevant, would all be forgotten or forgiven because Griffin would return as the same RGIII. Wasn’t that what the hour-long knee-recovery TV special implied? What knee injury? Look at Adrian Peterson, who came back as the same menace after surgery. Wasn’t that what months of “All in for Week 1” meant?
Now, after losing on its home field to Detroit, 27-20 on Sunday, Washington has fallen to 0-3, a record from which few teams recover to reach the playoffs. For the second time, just like the Eagles opener, they lost at home to a team that was 4-12 last year.
Now it’s likely that nobody has escaped anything. The consequences of Jan. 6 are arriving as this new season cracks. Last year, the Redskins won games by one, two and three points, as well as seven, seven and eight. They needed every bit of Griffin to do it. Now, he’s still very good, but his cape is at the dry cleaners. His Superman socks have a few holes. And Washington’s margin of error, even against mediocre-to-poor teams at home, has shriveled to nothing. A tough schedule just became ominous.
RGIII is back, or at least RG (0-III) is. He’s far faster and more mobile than most quarterbacks. He can and should play. He has no gimp. He’s a wonderful future-of-the-franchise quarterback. He’s passed for more than 300 yards in three straight defeats, though a lot has come in garbage time.
But Griffin is not quite the same player. Will he be in a week or a month or next season? Nobody knows. Will he adapt, grow and become some slightly different type of fabulous veteran quarterback? Probably, with time. For example, in the fourth quarter Griffin threw a spectacular 57-yard bomb to Aldrick Robinson that was called a touchdown but, on review, showed that Robinson hadn’t kept complete security all the way through the catch. Coach Mike Shanahan said: “I was not surprised at the result.”
However, at least for now, it appears that Griffin is still a bit of a young project quarterback, in development, rather than the electric leader, playing a step above the NFL that seemed destined to redefine the position for his era.
What is clear after three weeks is that Griffin does not yet have quite enough raw speed to turn on the jets and terrify a defense, or escape from a defensive lineman as if he wore concrete boots, or pass with near-perfect accuracy at a full sprint. Will it come back? When and to what degree?
Twice, Griffin ran on designed plays, intended to show what a threat he still was as a runner. Instead, those plays went a humble 11 yards combined, and actually showed how scary he isn’t. Last year, Griffin accelerated in the midst of a 76-yard scoring run that made the entire NFL gasp at replays for days. Defensive coordinators thought: “Got to stop that.” On Sunday, the Lions shrugged. By game’s end, Griffin had thrown 50 passes but run only those two called plays. Redskins to NFL: We’ll run him a couple of times for show.
Griffin is still mobile in the pocket, but, so far, not mercurial. Once, he was sacked and fumbled, but luckily recovered himself. Once, a botched play left him falling on another of his own fumbles.
However, it was two other chilling moments, both Griffin turnovers inside the Lions 30-yard line, which showed his current limitations. In the second quarter, Griffin was dragged down from behind by a defensive end as he scrambled to his right. Circle the moment. Willie Young had an angle. But that never would have happened last year. Griffin came equipped with jets then. Now, he has legs. He’s another fast guy in a league full of fast guys. As Young began to drag him down, Griffin threw off-balance into coverage for an easy interception that squandered at least a field goal attempt.
Early in the fourth quarter, tied at 17, Griffin scrambled then sped up the middle of the field, just as he often did in ’12, for 21 important yards. Then, because he knows he must protect his knee, because he has been ordered, cajoled and begged to “slide,” he tried to do what everybody wants.
But instead of sliding feet first, he dove head first, knocked the ball out of his own arms and fumbled into the paws of three waiting Lions. If he’d slid feet first and lost the ball at the same instant, the play would be ruled dead. Because he went head first, he was still considered a runner — thus, a fumble. And, at the least, another field goal attempt squandered. The Lions drove, took the lead 20-17 and never gave it back.
“I was declaring myself down to avoid the big hit,” said Griffin. “But that’s the rule. It could be a sucky rule but it’s still one of the NFL rules.”
Mystique is fragile. Griffin had it. Now, his knee brace practically announces, like a dreary flag, that he has to recreate it all over again.
The Redskins’ official stance is that they “beat themselves,” in London Fletcher’s words, or that “we’ve just got to clean it up,” in Griffin’s terms, and they will be on the right track. But, after a (supposedly) easy game next week in Oakland, the schedule gets tougher, maybe even brutal.
This game brought progress. The defense “only” allowed 441 yards, 27 points and DeAngelo Hall scored his second defensive touchdown of the year. That ties the defensive back for the team lead in points scored. Also, the Redskins moved the pocket more often to buy Griffin space and time. He ran basic sprint outs, designed to end as passes. So he wasn’t a sitting duck.
But the idea that the Redskins push that they have the same offense with the same potential, the same threats, the same options — so much of it keyed to the reality or the threat of Griffin’s skills — just isn’t true. There’s a reason the Redskins have only scored seven points on offense in the first half of three games. It’s one of the consequences of last December. Griffin isn’t the same. So the Redskins aren’t either. Not now. Eventually, someday, maybe.
Everyone has their own analysis of where blame lay on that day at FedEx against the Seahawks, including those who think there was no blame at all. Few will likely change their opinions on that piece of team history.
But a new piece of Washington history was made on Sunday. Since the team arrived here from Boston in 1937, the Lions had never won a game in this town. For my whole life, and long before, as soon as the Lions saw the Capitol dome on their team flight, they turned into tabbies. They were the homecoming patsy, the must-win game, the always-welcome Lions.
That almost certainly would have been the case again if the Robert Griffin III of ’12 were the Redskins’ quarterback. He still is, sort of — but not quite. And that difference, though small, may be the gap between winning and losing on several occasions this season. This defeat counts as “one.”
For more columns by Thomas Boswell, go to washingtonpost.com/boswell