For a football team that won their division for the first time in 14 years, whose desperate call for a franchise savior was seemingly answered and who appears to be headed in the right direction after three years under its current head coach and front office, the Washington Redskins shouldn't feel like they're on the golden path to the promised land just yet.
That is, of course, until they can significantly upgrade the protection for said savior, quarterback Robert Griffin III.
It wasn't necessarily the fact the Redskins ended their season with a loss in the first round of the playoffs following a miraculous turnaround to finish the year 7-0 after losing six of their first nine. It was the way in which the season ended. Crumbling figuratively and physically.
Originally injuring his right knee during Washington's Week 14 win against the Baltimore Ravens, Griffin was able to limp his way through two more regular season games to finish out the season before ultimately crashing to the dirt near the end of the fourth quarter of his first career playoff game.
It didn't look good. And it wasn't. Griffin tore his right ACL and LCL and suffered a partial tear of his MCL.
For the first time since undergoing extensive surgery nearly four weeks prior, Griffin spoke briefly while accepting his AP Rookie of the Year award in New Orleans during Super Bowl weekend (via The Washington Post):
"You will see a different version of me," the young quarterback said. "You won’t see the same Robert Griffin. You’ll see a better Robert Griffin.”
"There’s a lot of different things that we wish we would’ve done differently as a team,” he added. "I think the only regret and bitterness is the fact that we lost. We felt like we should’ve won the game. There’s things we could’ve done to win the game."
For Redskin fans, it's encouraging to hear Griffin's vow to return to the field. From all accounts, he's willing to develop and evolve his game around changes to the offense deemed necessary to avoid further injury to his right knee.
But of those "things" that Griffin mentions, protecting him is top priority. And that should be atop the team's list this offseason.
Although a majority of people will chalk up Griffin's injury as the typical and expected future for a mobile quarterback, it was actually a passing play that started it all.
During the fourth quarter against Baltimore, right tackle Tyler Polumbus leaks like a busted pipe and allows linebacker Paul Kruger to penetrate the pocket. Polumbus hadn't performed well in pass protection all season and on this specific play, Kruger eats him up, comes in low on Griffin, latches to his right leg, drags and waits for more of his Ravens teammates to bring him down.
Despite not receiving much attention, that particular play wasn't exactly an easy one to watch either. Griffin's right leg is coated with defenders, and he falls somewhat awkwardly.
On the very next play, the Redskins' entire blocking assignment seems to have stepped out to lunch.
With the Redskins facing 2nd-and-19, the Ravens show three down linemen and Kruger, lined up over tight end Logan Paulsen, showing blitz to Griffin's right. Anticipating a rush from Kruger, the offensive line immediately comes off the ball blocking right.
At first, the protection looks good. Left guard Kory Lichtensteiger slides right to help center Will Montgomery form a double-team, while Polumbus and right guard Chris Chester are there to complete a four-man wall.
Only problem is, Kruger drops into coverage.
Left on an island—perhaps unknowingly—left tackle Trent Williams handles his assignment and Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo is left with a hole as wide as the Patuxent to run through, and he forces Griffin to take off and attempt to make something out of nothing.
What happens next is the stomach-turning leg whip Griffin suffered after being tackled by 335-pound Haloti Ngata—the leg whip that was diagnosed as a sprain just a couple days following the game.
Given I'm not a doctor and have nowhere near the brain capacity necessary to become one, I can't say for certain if the hit Griffin suffered at the end of the Baltimore game was the beginning of the end (at least for 6-8 months) for his right knee.
However, I can say, looking back, that the play itself exemplifies some areas in which the Redskins need to improve for Griffin's safety and to help develop the "new version" of RG3 moving forward.
It may not be all on Polumbus, but the Baltimore game wasn't the right tackle's only poor performance. As much as we like his size, athleticism and attitude, the guy was insufferable in pass protection all year. If Griffin's mentioning of a "better Robert Griffin III" includes more passes thrown from a traditional pocket, then Polumbus doesn't seem like a fit on the right side of the line.
Giving credit where it's due, the Ravens defense executed well on 2nd-and-19 in that situation. Even though Baltimore was ahead at that point by eight points, they understood the threat of Washington's offense and they stayed aggressive. Whether or not you want to call that particular blitz dial-up a brilliant disguise or not, it was brilliant enough to work on the Redskins.
That being said, we could be looking at the left guard for poor awareness. Even if the call was to block down, a unimpeded blitzing linebacker should at least warrant a last-second desperation block to try and throw him off line.
Lichtensteiger is set to be a free agent this offseason, and the team reached a little bit last April to draft guard Josh LeRibeus in the third round. Although Shanahan calls Licthensteiger one of the Redskins' best run-blockers, I wouldn't be entirely shocked if the team moved ahead without him. LeRibeus showed well at the end of last season, and Washington has an $18 million cap penalty on their plate.
It's especially tough for a guy like Licthensteiger, who seems to have digressed following an ACL tear of his own in 2011. According to Pro Football Focus, of the 81 guards who played at least 25 percent of their team's snaps last season, Lichtensteiger ranked 72nd overall.
Not lost in all of this is running back Evan Royster. Despite rookie Alfred Morris' surprising emergence in 2012 with 1,613 rushing yards, he wasn't as trusted a blocker as Royster, the second-year draft pick from Penn State. But on the play that eventually led to Griffin's injury, the Redskins may have been better off sending out Betty White (present day) to block in his stead.
As you'll see in the shots, Royster seems to anticipate some sort of outside rush from the left. Either that, or the slight delay from Ayanbadejo baits him hard enough to think he can leave the backfield and find a soft spot for a dump pass. Whichever it may be, he was off.
While Morris may develop into a better blocker, the team doesn't seem to give him much opportunity as a pass-catcher. Or maybe I'm just a little too high on his potential as one. Whatever the reason, it would be helpful for the Redskins to find a running back who's reliable in pass protection. And just the same, a reliable pass-catcher out of the backfield, preferably with speed and quickness, would drastically help the Redskins offense.
Would a speedy Darren Sproles-type guy have saved Griffin on that play? Probably not. But who's to say Griffin wouldn't have been more comfortable checking down to a speedster like that? Wouldn't a receiving threat out of the backfield be a perfect fit if the Redskins transition to a more traditional pocket-passing offense?
Also a running back to keep in mind here regarding pass protection is Roy Helu. His recovery isn't going quite as well as Redskin fans had hoped, but if he's able to return next season at 100 percent, that's a positive. As a rookie in 2011, Helu ranked second as a blocker amongst running backs who played at least 60 percent of their team's snaps (according to PFF).
Finally, improved blocking isn't necessarily the only facet when addressing the need to protect RG3. Protecting him indirectly with, say, a physical and dependable wideout would count too. Not only could such a player be a reliable receiving target, but play-calling could change dramatically with a top-notch receiver in the offense.
The down and distance on this specific play may alter your outlook a bit, but think of a guy like Anquan Boldin. He may not be the fastest or the flashiest, but he has strong hands, he uses his body well and he hauls in big passes. If the Ravens need yards, they can always look to Boldin.
The Redskins need to find one of those guys. Mind you, a healthy Fred Davis tends to make for a reliable target with size, but his free-agent status makes his future is up in the air—not to mention that he's coming off an Achilles tear.
If the Redskins offense moves in the direction of more pocket passing and less reliance on Griffin taking off, then drafting and developing a go-to receiver in the mold of a Anquan Boldin—someone like Kansas State wideout Chris Harper—would work wonders.
Don't get me wrong, Pierre Garcon and Joshua Morgan are great, but they're excel best in yards after the catch. Leonard Hankerson would be the only sizable target after those guys, and his 2012 season could be safely described as underwhelming.
Addressing all of the Redskins needs in one offseason is a stretch. In fact, it's impossible given the cap penalty. But if Bruce Allen and Mike Shanahan sit down to make a honey-do list before free agency kicks off March 12, protecting Robert Griffin III, both directly and indirectly, is priority number one.
And probably number two, three and four, too.