The often dazzling success of rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III in the offensive system drawn up specifically for him by his Washington Redskins coaches was one of the leading story lines of this NFL season.
Unfortunately for the Redskins, the story ended in a cliffhanger: Will Griffin be ready to pick up where he left off after knee surgery? That now promises to draw as much attention as anything else that will happen during the offseason.
Of all that the Redskins accomplished in securing their first NFC East title since 1999, nothing was more significant than Griffin’s performance and the team’s efforts to help him establish himself as one of the league’s most dynamic young stars.
Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan and his son Kyle, the team’s offensive coordinator, designed an offense that took advantage of Griffin’s varied skills by blending elements borrowed from the college game with those more traditionally seen in the NFL. Griffin thrived, setting an NFL rookie record with a 102.4 passer rating and joining Randall Cunningham, Bobby Douglass and Michael Vick as the only quarterbacks, rookie or otherwise, to have an 800-yard rushing season.
With fellow rookie Alfred Morris going from sixth-round draft pick to 1,613-yard rusher, the Redskins could have the cornerstones of a highly productive offense for years to come.
“We kind of showed everybody that we are real competition in the NFC East,” tight end Niles Paul said, “and we definitely have a chance to do big things in the future.”
But Griffin absorbed jarring hits along the way, raising questions about the possible consequences of his playing style and the Redskins’ willingness to use him as a runner. And everything changed for Washington when Griffin’s right knee buckled and he crumpled to the turf late in Washington’s first-round playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
He underwent surgery for tears of his anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments three days later. Some medical experts not involved in Griffin’s case say there is a strong possibility he will not be ready to play at the start of next season. So there’s no way to know now whether the Redskins’ task will be able to build on what Griffin accomplished this season or to find a way to make the offense work without him.
“He’s a young guy and a tough guy, too,” guard Chris Chester said last week, before Griffin’s surgery. “So if there’s anything about his recovery that he can do, he’s going to do whatever it takes to get back out there.”
Griffin’s rookie backup, Kirk Cousins, won a big game down the stretch for the Redskins in Cleveland, his first NFL start, in the one game Griffin missed when he initially hurt his knee. There was talk after that game that the Redskins might be able to pick up a second-round draft choice for Cousins if they decided to trade him. That seems inconceivable now, with Cousins slated to open next season as the starter if Griffin isn’t ready.
With Griffin and Morris, the Redskins had the league’s top-ranked rushing offense in 2012 and ranked fifth in the NFL in total offense. Griffin kept opposing defenses off balance with his ability to run the ball on option plays, and prevented them from focusing exclusively on Morris. If Cousins opens next season as the starter, option plays may become more rare and Morris will have to demonstrate that he can be just as effective without Griffin distracting defenses. But the Redskins appear confident they can win with Cousins.
“We don’t ever have an issue when Kirk has to go in there and try to perform,” linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said after the loss to the Seahawks.
Expectations undoubtedly will be higher for the Redskins next season, though they could be tempered if Griffin is not ready.
“Next year our goals are changed,” Mike Shanahan said. “Everybody believes that we’ll be at a very, very high level. When you do win the NFC East, they expect to win it again. That’s the standard. You create a new standard. . . . They want to get to the mountaintop. That’s what you like. That’s what you look for.”
Tight end Fred Davis and left guard Kory Lichtensteiger are among the key players on offense eligible for unrestricted free agency in March. Davis was given the team’s franchise-player tag last offseason to, in effect, keep him off the free agent market. He was en route to a productive season when he ruptured his Achilles’ tendon after seven games. If he is re-signed, he gives the Redskins another reliable pass-catcher.
The team made a push last offseason to upgrade its wide receiver corps by adding free agents Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan. Garcon was plagued virtually all season by a torn ligament in his toe, but managed at times to make the kind of impact the Redskins envisioned when they signed him. Even so, the Redskins again lacked a 1,000-yard receiver, something that was supposed to be remedied by the offseason moves.
Lichtensteiger was part of an offensive line that performed better than many observers had expected entering the season. He has said he would like to return. But if he departs in free agency, the Redskins appear to have Josh LeRibeus ready to step in as a starter at guard. The rookie filled in for Lichtensteiger during the playoff defeat to Seattle after Lichtensteiger left on the opening drive with a sprained ankle. The unit could be tested next season if Griffin’s mobility is reduced or he misses a significant portion of the season.
“There’s always whatever the offseason brings to a team and guys moving around,” Chester said. “But if we can keep as close as we can to the core of guys we have, I feel very optimistic about the future for us.”