Robert Griffin III's return from major knee surgery is often overshadowed by how the Washington Redskins will use him. Specifically, will they play it safe to avoid further injury and perhaps limit the things that make him so dangerous in the first place?
The second part of that question became more relevant amid the confusion following Griffin getting the all-clear for Week 1. His surgeon, Dr. James Andrews, gave the green light but reportedly still had concerns.
According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, those concerns involved how the Redskins plan to use Griffin. However, the waters were muddied when Dr. Andrews denied the concerns, according to Brian McNally of The Washington Times.
Well, Dr. Andrews may or may not have concerns, but that won't stop every Redskins fan from fretting whenever Griffin takes off on a run. But the truth is that they need not worry as much.
Griffin does not have to run to be effective in Washington. That is because the offensive system of head coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan contains enough concepts to make Griffin a success in the pocket.
One of the keys in curbing some of the reckless tendencies shared by all dual-threat quarterbacks is providing other options. These are not necessarily the handoff, fake it or take-it-and-run choices of the read-option either.
As Peter King of Sports Illustrated points out, quarterbacks will continue to be exposed to greater punishment in the read-option:
When I asked coaches and players that question this summer, two things stuck out in their responses: punishment of the quarterback, and simple defensive discipline. The NFL didn’t let defenders hit quarterbacks freely when they held the ball in a running back’s gut last year; this year, a QB with his hands on the ball in read-option mode is fair game. I believe defensive players will attack the quarterback more, even if they incur an unnecessary roughness penalty or three along the way.
Yet the Redskins cannot afford to ditch the read-option altogether. It was just too effective in 2012, and with defenses still scrambling to grasp it, the scheme should not be abandoned.
But considering the system does naturally put quarterbacks in jeopardy more often, the Redskins might need to dial it back. But what are some of the non-read-option ploys the Redskins can use to keep Griffin effective?
The answer is to look at the version of the Shanahan offense that was read-option free. Returning to the playbook for the 2011 season reveals three things the Redskins can do to reduce how often Griffin feels compelled to run.
The first involves dual-route concepts, a staple of the Shanahan system. They create gaps in coverage, giving a quarterback multiple open targets to aim for.
A play from Week 4 of the 2011 season, a 17-10 road win over the St. Louis Rams, shows how the Redskins can make dual routes work.
The offense, with Rex Grossman at quarterback, faced a 3rd-and-10 at the Rams' 44-yard line. The Redskins aligned in a three-receiver set, with two receivers on the weak side. Those receivers ran the dual-route concept.
The outside receiver, Jabar Gaffney, ran an in-breaking route that initially looked like a slant but matured into a post pattern. The inside receiver, Santana Moss, ran an out pattern to the sideline.
Once the ball was snapped, the dual route put the outside cornerback in a bind. Gaffney's vertical route took him behind the short coverage, but the corner nearest the sideline could not ignore Moss's out-breaking pattern.
With the slot corner anticipating an inside break from Moss and staying underneath, Gaffney got behind the short coverage into the gap that Moss's route created. Gaffney made the easy catch for 17 yards and a first down.
The beauty of this play is that even if the coverage had trailed Gaffney all the way, Moss would have been wide open.
A quality graphic of this play concept is provided in Doug Farrar's breakdown for The Washington Post. Simply scroll through the images to see how the principles of the play are made possible.
The Shanahans gave their quarterback two open targets on this play. A quarterback with those kind of options does not need to escape the pocket and make plays with his feet.
Many times during last season, the Redskins were content to have only one receiver in a pattern. This was particularly evident on the play-action verticals from option looks.
But if defenses are no longer as easily fooled on these plays, Griffin will have to run, exposing himself to injury. Giving him more targets per pass attempt will reduce how often he runs and ultimately refine his skills as a passer.
Another way to ensure his safety is to give him more outlet receivers. That means more passes to running backs.
In 2012, Redskins running backs accounted for only 41 receptions, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. That has to change this season, and the return of Roy Helu Jr. will help.
Helu is the best pass-catching back on the roster. He has excellent hands and the acceleration to make good gains in the open field.
A play from Week 9 of the 2011 season shows how Helu is a useful outlet. The Redskins were taking on the San Francisco 49ers and faced a 2nd-and-10 at their own 48-yard line.
This time it was John Beck at quarterback, and he was in a standard shotgun look with Helu next to him. The Redskins created room underneath for Helu by having their quartet of outside receivers run vertical routes.
Those routes created an open area between the first and third levels of the defense. Helu was free to drift through the line and simply turn and face his quarterback.
Once he received the screen pass, the Redskins quickly got blocking linemen out in front. Because they are required to be mobile and good in space for the zone-running game, Washington's offensive linemen are ideally suited for screen plays.
With center Will Montgomery and guard Chris Chester quickly reaching linebackers, Helu used his quickness to scoot off their blocks. He gained 11 yards and a first down.
This kind of screen play is simple and a quarterback's best friend. It only takes a quick and short flip to the back, who has the space to let his speed exploit the open field.
The Redskins have both Helu and rookie fifth-round pick Chris Thompson for these plays. They should build natural screen outlets into every basic pass concept that allows it.
Then Griffin will also have a safety valve, which will help him to resist the urge to scramble if his initial downfield reads are eliminated. In fact, the game against the 49ers featured an example of this suggestion in practice.
Beck and the offense faced a 2nd-and-10 at their own 10-yard line. The Redskins initially aligned in an I-formation look, with two receivers on one side.
They brought a receiver across in motion. That occupied the attention of the cornerback and safety, as the Redskins prepared to take the coverage deep to set up an underneath route.
The target for that underneath route was fullback Darrel Young. He would run a hook pattern to the middle and break to the outside.
That put the safety in a bind, giving him two possible receivers to consider. At the snap, the outside receiver took the safety deep, which allowed Young to work underneath.
He ran his pattern in front of the zone-dropping linebackers. That left him wide open for an easy 12-yard gain and a first down.
This is the kind of pass to a backfield receiver that the Redskins could feature more often. It is a classic West Coast offense passing concept executed from a run-heavy look.
The Redskins did indeed bait the 49ers with a play-action fake. Given the strength of their base zone-running game, this high-percentage deception should work every time.
The play might be too nickel and dime for some. After all, the basic staple of last season's pass attack was to go vertical.
But the last thing the Redskins want is for Griffin to resort to running every time the deep routes are covered. The Redskins should give their young quarterback more targets and varied routes on a play. Featuring backfield receivers more often is the ideal compromise.
This not a call to prohibit Griffin's running. Nor is it a plea to ditch the read-option. In fact, as King noted, the read-option is not tied to Griffin's injury woes:
At 23, the future of Washington’s offense has already had two knee reconstructions, at Baylor in 2009 and then in January after shredding his right knee in a wild-card loss to the Seahawks. Griffin took his three biggest hits last year on non-read-option plays. Often, he got hit because he was trying to play like he did in college—with no fear of injury.
The final part of that quote is particularly telling. The Redskins don't want Griffin turning to the run whenever a pass concept breaks down just because it worked in college.
That would soon make the Redskins easy to defend. It would just be a matter of taking away deep routes with Cover 2 Man coverage and assigning a spy to Griffin.
That kind of predictability between deciding when to run and when not to run helped stunt the career of Donovan McNabb.
The three plays illustrated here are all meant to show how the Shanahan offense can provide Griffin with enough choices to make scrambling to a save a play his very last resort.
All screenshots courtesy of Fox Sports and NFL.com Game Pass.