The Washington Redskins got some great news earlier this week with the announcement that quarterback Robert Griffin has been cleared to start in Week 1. However, the same doctor who cleared Griffin to play has apparently expressed concerns as to whether the 2012 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year can stay on the field.
That is, if the Redskins continue to utilize Griffin the way they did a year ago.
However, Dr. James Andrews, who performed Griffin's knee surgery, has reservations about the second-year pro's future according to ESPN's Trey Wingo (via Adam Schefter).
Are Andrews' concerns valid? Does the Washington offense, and in particular its zone-read (or read-option, as it's more commonly known) elements, subject Griffin to unnecessary risks?
Most importantly, should the team change the offense to lessen those risks?
On some level, the easy answer would seem to be yes. After all, the hit against the Baltimore Ravens that seemingly set the stage for the injury against Seattle happened on a Griffin scramble.
On a second down play in the fourth quarter of a December game, Griffin tried to move the chains with his feet. Griffin was hit low by defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. The result was a sprain that cost Griffin one game during the regular season and possibly contributed to what happened in the postseason.
Granted, that particular play wasn't a designed run. However, it demonstrates the risk to Griffin every time he takes off.
The read-option took the NFL by storm last year, and quarterbacks like Griffin and Colin Kaepernick were very successful running it. However, as Pete Prisco of CBS Sports recently reported, defensive coordinators around the NFL have devised a strategy for limiting the scheme's effectiveness.
A strategy involving the quarterback getting blasted with regularity.
"When these guys carry out the fakes, and don't show that they don't have the ball, they are going to get hit," one NFC coach said. "I think that's what defenses will be designed to do. He's got it tucked down off play action like he has it he's going to get hits."
Given statements like that, with one NFC defensive end telling Prisco that "They [read-option quarterbacks] are going to get smacked," and Prisco theorizing that "I have a strange feeling we're going to see more 15-yard hits on the quarterback than we have in a long time," no wonder Andrews is worried.
With that said though, revamping the offense doesn't solve the problem. It simply trades one problem for another.
The read-option wasn't just a big part of Griffin's success on the ground. The hesitation that it causes in opposing defenders helps in the passing game as well, especially on quick passes where getting a jump at the line of scrimmage is so important.
This isn't to say that Griffin can't be successful as more of a pocket passer. However, taking away one of his most impressive skills (his mobility) for the sake of "protecting" him limits both the damage Washington's best offensive player can do and the team's play-calling options.
There are changes that the Redskins should (and likely will make). With a capable running back in Alfred Morris behind Griffin, the number of zone-read calls could be reduced (in favor of more traditional running plays) without adversely affecting the offense significantly.
Also, as ESPN's John Keim pointed out, the Redskins altered the makeup of their zone-read looks as last season progressed.
On runs, as defenses adjusted, the Redskins tweaked their blocking schemes, using a fullback and tight end alongside Griffin in the pistol, with a running back behind him. In Griffin's final seven games, he was hit 58 percent of the time from the zone read, either after he handed off or ran. In the first nine games, he was hit 77 percent of the time in those situations.
Lastly, according to what offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan told Keim, zone-read quarterbacks aren't necessarily in any more danger than more conventional ones.
He stayed healthy last year running the zone read. So I feel pretty good about that. You really hope no one gets hurt. It's hard to control injuries. … When you do the zone read, everyone [on the opposing defense] is accounted for. There's not many free hitters in it.
There's also the matter of the NFL's efforts to protect quarterbacks. If Prisco is right, and we see an epidemic of roughing the passer calls on read-option signal-callers, you can bet the rent the NFL will get involved.
The NFL doesn't want the young star quarterbacks who are becoming the new face of the league getting the snot knocked out of them.
Those defenders might be OK with getting flagged. Six-figure fines and lost game checks as the result of suspensions are another matter altogether.
The biggest key to Robert Griffin staying healthy this year isn't altering the Washington offense. It's Robert Griffin altering his playing style.
Far too many times last year, Griffin took unnecessary hits trying to extend plays. Taking off with the ball is fine, but discretion is the better part of valor.
Griffin would be well served to watch game film of Russell Wilson of the Seahawks, a read-option quarterback who appears to have that mantra down pat.
Griffin also needs to get the ball out more quickly when passing. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Griffin held the ball for an average of 3.07 seconds before running or passing in 2012. The other three quarterbacks who averaged over three seconds (Wilson, Michael Vick of the Philadelphia Eagles and Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers) are all known as much for their prowess running the ball as throwing it.
This is not a coincidence.
However, Griffin also ranked sixth in the time that he holds the ball before a pass attempt.
Guess what happens to quarterbacks who hold the ball a long time? They get hit. A lot.
PFF ranked Griffin as the NFL's most effective passer last year while under pressure, but his effectiveness doesn't lessen the punishment he took.
There are, however, small steps that can be taken to do that.
A little bit more power-I and a little less read-option from the Redskins. A little more sliding and a little less fighting for that last yard from Griffin.
Will that eliminate the risk? Nope. It can't be done with scramblers like Vick and Griffin, who share a similar abandon while running the ball.
It can, however, be mitigated without taking away part of what makes Griffin so special to begin with.
At the very least that would mean Redskins fans (and Dr. Andrews) watching fewer plays through their hands in 2013.