Maybe Robert Griffin III finally has figured out how much coaching he needs to play in the NFL. Maybe he’s realized how much interdependence with others it takes to look like a star in this league. Maybe he’s committed to working as hard in the film room as he does in the weight room, because he understands that a quarterback has to play the game as much with his brain as his body. Maybe he’s finally getting to the point he should have been all along. We’ll see.
For the first time since his rookie year, after a long period of regression, Griffin showed some improvement. Owner Dan Snyder reportedly had been baffled by the degree to which Griffin deteriorated over the past couple of seasons after his blazing rookie performance in 2012. But Griffin’s struggles weren’t baffling; they were entirely predictable for a young quarterback who had never run a pro offense. They became worse than they had to, partly because the owner took him on a magic red carpet tour and gave him a false sense of entitlement. Griffin got infected by the same ailment that bedevils the entire franchise and has caused it to finish last in the NFC East in six out of seven years: the preference for fantasy football over the real thing.
So while it was wonderful that Griffin and Washington beat the Philadelphia Eagles, the very worst thing they can do is to believe that their problems are solved. It’s the fatal attraction to easy answers that got them in this 4-11 mess in the first place. All that happened Saturday was that Griffin eked out a win against an opponent that missed two field-goal attempts. The best thing that could be said about it was that there were signs the young man has been restored to some sense of reality.
“He looked more comfortable yesterday dropping back in [Coach Jay Gruden’s] scheme and throwing the football,” former coach Mike Shanahan said in a telephone interview. “It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s something you have to work on to really get better at, and especially young players, they don’t realize the attention to detail you need, the study habits, that go into understanding defenses, understanding your role . . . It takes precise mechanics and total immersion in film, the dotting of every ‘i’ and crossing of every ‘t.’ “
It’s taken two years to prove that point. Shanahan got fired trying, and Gruden has had to fight for an entire season, from training camp through 15 games and countless dramas, simply to demand fundamentals from the quarterback. The result? Griffin seemed to graduate to a next level of decision-making, made adjustments at the line without any terrible mistakes, and took just two sacks as opposed to six or seven. As Gruden put it, Griffin started to grasp “some concepts of the offense, and how we’re trying to attack a defense started to pay off.”
A third-year quarterback the club gave up a ransom in draft picks for is just now learning to attack a defense. That’s how intransigent Griffin has been, and how much of a project he remains. Will Griffin be truly malleable going forward, or will he revert to his old habit of believing all he needs is himself? How he answers that question will determine his future not just with the club, but with the league.
It became apparent only this season just what an ingenious job Mike and Kyle Shanahan did with Griffin in his rookie year. They designed a strategy around his strengths that allowed him to start despite his inexperience, utilizing all that physical electricity, the firehose arm on the deep balls and those hurdler’s legs, to build his confidence while hiding his lack of knowledge. We forget this now, but in his rookie debut, his first six passes were behind the line of scrimmage. That’s how careful the Shanahans were with him. And it worked. Over a seven-game winning streak that season, Washington went from dead last in the league on third downs to fifth-best, converting 48 percent by the end of the year.
It was inevitable that other teams would adjust to Griffin, but the hope was that Griffin would grow in time to adjust to the adjustments. Then came the complicating knee injury. In his defense, at least some of Griffin’s delayed maturation has to do with physical problems. But his knee and ankle ailments shouldn’t have prevented him from studying and absorbing. Instead of recognizing how much help he had received and still needed, Griffin decided the Shanahans had screwed up, and that his only problem was coaches who didn’t use him properly.
Thus the strange creature we’ve watched through two seasons of double-digit losses, who went from arrogance to panic with nothing in between.
Washington has been continually hobbled in its game-planning because there were things he refused to run, and what he did want to run, he hadn’t learned. This indulgence and coddling had internal repercussions that only players can know, but 24 losses suggest the level of resentment and apathy. Every player on the roster has lost valuable time, and chunks of his earning power, to this fantasy nonsense. It’s why so many people have been so very hard on Griffin. It’s why Steve Young said he didn’t work hard enough in the film room, why Fran Tarkenton called him a “pontificator,” why DeSean Jackson tweeted that you can’t do great things “with basic people,” and why Gruden benched him. Griffin was either going to get it, have some sort of epiphany, or be a bust.
The good news is that, when exposed, Griffin showed some movement. But it’s important, crucial even, that his performance against Philadelphia is recognized for what it is and no more. Yes, he hit a couple of breathtaking deep balls to Jackson. He also threw an interception on another when he failed to recognize the safety crossing to help. Yes, he got the W – but only after Mark Sanchez threw a fatal interception himself. Yes, he managed the game. But he was also just 2 of 9 on third downs. And that last stat says that Washington’s work with him is far, far from done.
Griffin played better against Philadelphia – a little. He didn’t play better because his knee or ankle was stronger. He played better because his head got a little smaller, and smarter.
Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org