Fact or Fiction for Washington Redskins Quarterback Robert Griffin III

Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistDecember 12, 2013

USA Today

Robert Griffin III's sophomore season is over. Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan confirmed that on Wednesday, per The Washington Post, announcing that the team would shut the struggling and oft-harassed franchise quarterback down for the final three weeks of a spoiled 2013 campaign. Griffin's backup/stunt double Kirk Cousins will run the offense to close out the year. 

That gives us a chance to regroup and reflect on what Griffin's been able to accomplish two years into what many hope—actually, expect—will be a Hall of Fame career. 

Few 23-year-olds on the planet are in a brighter spotlight than the one constantly shining on Griffin, whose accomplishments and mistakes are both magnified by diehard fans and the national and local media. As a result, it's easy to lose sight of reality. 

With that in mind, let's separate fact from fiction regarding some of the conclusions many of us have drawn about RGIII.


Griffin exposes himself to too many hits: Fact

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That hit from Connor Barwin is one of many on Griffin that he could have avoided. No, the pass protection wasn't good, but RGIII lacks a sense of urgency when the pocket collapses and also takes far too many unnecessary hits as a runner. 

“Bottom line, I can’t take those amount of hits,” Griffin said after he was hit 18 times against the Vikings last month, per John Keim of ESPN.com. “You don’t want to be hit that much. A lot of great quarterbacks don’t get hit that much. It’s not just me, it’s a lot of things that go into that. We just have to get better.” 

Of course, he's mobile, so only two quarterbacksTerrelle Pryor and Cam Newton—have lasted longer than he has in the pocket before getting sacked, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). But because he's slow with his progressions (more on that in a moment) and doesn't throw the ball away enough, he's spending more time in the pocket than all but seven other quarterbacks who've played at least 50 percent of their teams' offensive snaps.

According to PFF, Griffin has thrown the ball away just 14 times on 531 dropbacks. By comparison, Russell Wilson of Seattle has thrown it away 16 times on only 404 dropbacks. Griffin's receivers haven't exactly been excelling at getting open, his completion percentage isn't high and he's running less this year, so that helps explain why he's absorbing a lot of hits that could have been avoided.

This is also linked to Griffin's inability to find open targets. An example comes from last month's Monday night game against San Francisco. Here, Griffin is not in immediate danger and clearly has an open receiver beyond the first-down marker. 

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But he either doesn't see that or is feeling the pressure to convert, so he takes a silly risk in trying to pick up the first down with his legs despite the fact it probably isn't in the cards. The result is a big hit, a sack and a fumble.

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And against Minnesota, he fails to recognize a checkdown option on second down and sprints for the end zone. It's a nice gain, but he should have slid rather than allowing himself to be pancaked by a quartet of Vikings defenders. 

And remember, he's not the same size as Ben Roethlisberger or Cam Newton. This isn't sustainable. 

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To his credit, Griffin has slid more commonly as this season has worn on. Two examples come to mind from that Week 11 Philadelphia game, and he also had a slide when he might have otherwise plowed forward on a scramble against the Giants on Dec. 1. 

His overall hit total will probably be lower than it was during his rookie year, but Griffin still has to work to become less of a target for tacklers. No more trying to bait defenders into penalties while going out of bounds, and no more crashing into packs of defensive players when the moment doesn't completely require it. It's not worth it.


Griffin isn't accurate enough: Fact (for now)

Griffin's accuracy rate has plummeted in his second season. I don't know if we're just noticing it more because he's been less effective in other areas, but there have been far too many wayward throws, regardless of the pressure. 

There was absolutely no pressure, for example, on this fourth-quarter incompletion against the Giants in Week 13:

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Same for when he missed a wide-open Logan Paulsen against the Eagles in Week 11:

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You absolutely cannot miss Paulsen on a dump-off into the flat on fourth down, which is what he did in the fourth quarter of that Philly game.

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And it's hard to wrap my head around how often we've seen significant overthrows on deep balls this season. An example from the San Francisco game:

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His interception rate has gone from 1.3 (which led the league in 2012) to 2.6 (ranked 21st, behind Mike Glennon and Chad Henne). His completion percentage has dropped from 65.6 to 60.1. And his accuracy percentage—which PFF generates after weeding out drops, batted passes, throwaways, spikes and hits as the quarterback threw—has sunk from 79.6 to 72.4.

Is it the knee? Maybe. Let's remember that he lost an entire offseason, so there was some rust to knock off early. Even if there's nothing wrong with Griffin from a mechanical standpoint, it's possible he just wasn't able to click with his receivers due to the lack of preparation. 

This is fixable, but it's definitely an issue that has to be addressed in the offseason.


Griffin's pass protection is terrible: Fiction

It's bad, and it has gotten worse late in the season, but it isn't terrible. Trent Williams is the third-best pass-blocking left tackle in the league, according to PFF. He's kept the blind side relatively clean. Tyler Polumbus has been solid on the right side. 

PFF actually gives the line as a whole the eighth-best pass-blocking efficiency rating in the league. According to those numbers, Griffin has been pressured on 38 percent of his dropbacks, which ranks behind 11 other (qualified) starting quarterbacks and only represents a 3.2 percent increase over last season.

Two differences. First, Griffin hasn't been as elusive and hasn't been making good decisions, which is exacerbating those protection issues. And second, the vast majority of the pressure he's facing has come up the middle.

Example No. 1: Everson Griffen making a fool of Chris Chester and Will Montgomery on a fourth-quarter sack in Week 10:

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Example No. 2: Terrance Knighton dominating left guard Kory Lichtensteiger before smashing Griffin and forcing an interception in the fourth quarter of the Week 8 Washington-Denver matchup:

RGIII as a runner, 2013
First four weeks18.04.0
Last nine weeks46.36.1
Pro Football Reference

Usually, that's somewhat beneficial for a mobile quarterback. But Griffin's been having serious issues with the in-your-face pressure his interior linemen have been lassoing him with. His accuracy percentage under pressure last season was a league-high 75.0. This year, that number has plummeted to 60.7, per PFF.

So it's not the pressure, really. It's the way he's handling the pressure, which is generally coming from a new spot. How much of that is mental and how much of it is physical? Let's start heading down that path.


Griffin isn't healthy: Fiction

"I don’t think he should be playing," said Ahmad Brooks of the 49ers after the November game between San Francisco and Washington, according to CSN Washington. "You can see it. Everybody can see it, everybody can see it."

But if Brooks is suggesting that Griffin's knee is less than 100 percent, he's wrong. From a medical standpoint, that new ligament in RGIII's right knee is completely stable. If that weren't the case, he wouldn't have been cleared in August. 

A lack of physical ability would be a convenient excuse, but it's not realistic. Griffin's knee is fine. However, there's more to getting over a major surgical procedure like the one Dr. James Andrews performed on RGIII 11 months ago. 


Griffin hasn't recovered mentally from reconstructive knee surgery: Fact

Maybe this is what Brooks was actually getting at. It would make a lot more sense, because while Griffin's knee has recovered fully, his entire body—and his brain, in particular—is behind. 

Dr. Robert Marx, who is a professor of orthopedic surgery at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York, told me back in September that it usually takes an athlete a full year on the field before he's back to normal, citing the mental aspect as a significant factor in that long, um, post-recovery recovery.

"Confidence is the last thing to return," said Dr. Marx, "and if the athlete is tentative, they may not perform as well as normal."

Have you seen Griffin run lately? You can see that he's regaining that confidence when he takes off, which is a very good sign.

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That speed has been there most of the year, but he looked tentative as both a runner and a passer earlier this season. 

He certainly wasn't picking up 15-yard gains in situations like these back in September:

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And we're not seeing as many awkward plants and finishes on deliveries, like this one against Philly in the season opener:


Griffin stares down receivers and is slow through his progressions: Fact

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A lot of these points are easy to connect to one another. Griffin's worst habit is two-pronged and is very closely related to the number of hits he takes. First, he becomes obsessed with his initial read on passing plays. And second, he becomes too impatient and settles for scrambles rather than secondary reads or throwaways (which is where the hits come from). 

Against Denver, for example, Griffin became so determined to hit Pierre Garcon on a deep ball that wasn't there that he never hit his next reads, three of which were open. Unbelievably, he settled for a short scramble here, also taking a hit:

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Same problem against Dallas, with this play resulting in a fumble from the quarterback:

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And back to the Denver game. He forced this one into an unnecessary space and the Broncos picked it off:

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In fact, Griffin's biggest mistake of the year—an unnecessary end-zone interception to ice that game against Philly—came as a result of his inability to notice a secondary read that had come open underneath.

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Earlier on the same play in which he was hammered by several Minnesota defenders, he could have given it to Roy Helu in the right flat, but he never looked that way.

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Here, with no pressure at all, he fails to see two wide-open receivers and an easy touchdown over the top, instead forcing a pass toward Jordan Reed, who appeared to be his first read but was well-covered. 

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As you can probably tell, we had plenty of examples to work with just within a six-week period. 

The problem is that, as a rookie, Griffin became so damn comfortable throwing to his first read on a dig route coming out of zone-read play action. That's been taken away this year, and he's been slow to adjust.

That could mean he's hit a wall, or it could just be the result of defensive coordinators outsmarting a quarterback who—again—didn't have an offseason to take his game to the next level. 

There's something to that. We should point out that he finished the season on a positive note in this area. The weather was bad this past week against a good Kansas City defense, so forget that. But in Week 13 against the Giants, Griffin looked like a cool veteran in the pocket more often than not. 

Two positive examples, courtesy of NBC replays: 

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Neither play resulted in a big gain, but both were completions, which is really the only goal once those early reads have been taken away.


Griffin's attitude is detrimental to the team: Fiction

USA Today's Nate Scott nailed it with this summary

He’s confident, motivated, full of self-belief, and wants the spotlight on him. When the team is winning, this is all evidence of Griffin’s ability to be a natural leader. He’s a guy who “wants the ball with the game on the line.” One who “believes in himself, so his teammates then believe in him,” to borrow another sportswriter cliche.

When the Redskins lose, though, this exact same attitude is now a problem. His desire to be the man isn’t a sign of confidence anymore, but now a sign of arrogance. His needing to have the ball with the game on the line is no longer a sign of self-belief but selfishness and a lack of faith in his teammates.

That's all this is. When you're losing, everything sucks. When you're winning, it's all merry. It must have something to do with our natural desire for everything to be black or white. But there's a lot of gray here. 

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I don't know if Griffin has a sense of entitlement or an inflated ego, but if that's the case, he certainly isn't the first superstar athlete to suffer from that "problem."

It'd be great to see him accept more responsibility for what has happened this year in D.C., but sometimes you have to step back and remind yourself that we're talking about a guy who was born in 1990. He's got some maturing to do, I'm sure, but I have no doubt that'll happen. Maybe not with Mike and Kyle Shanahan as his bosses, but it'll happen. 


Griffin needs to work in a new offensive system: Fact

This just isn't working, guys. As we've noted, Griffin is taking too many hits and now the offense has stalled. Mike Shanahan's zone-stretch attack sure is effective in terms of getting the most out of backs, but that hasn't been the formula for NFL success for nearly two decades.

Shanahan is stubborn about that zone-blocking approach, as well as the zone-read option. Both have their advantages, but the line Shanahan requires to run the scheme is too small, which is doing Griffin no favors. Defenses have wised up to what he's doing, and RGIII has been the primary victim. 

If Griffin's health is the top priority, you can't run an offense that allows defensive players to get this free at the line:

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Griffin was sacked there, and here...

It's time to see Griffin as a pocket passer behind a line made up of hulks. It's time to see him run an offense that gives him more of a chance to breathe—one that allows him to work toward becoming a quarterback who scrambles only when plays break down. 


Griffin will never be the same player he was as a rookie: Fiction

Redskins fans must be a little bit terrified that Griffin was a flash in the NFL pan as a rookie. In fact, you can hear their Twitter roars. Maybe that torn ACL and LCL were the end of the line. 

But as I noted above, experts agree that it almost always takes a year on the field before players completely regain what was lost, regardless of whether that's mental or physical. 

We're also underestimating how much Griffin's development was stunted by his lack of a 2013 offseason. That was to be his first full NFL offseason, and you'll recall that Shanahan had planned to add to his repertoire in Year 2. That all sort of went out the window when Griffin hurt his knee. 

Late this year, before he was shut down, we started to see small glimpses of the Griffin football fans knew and loved in 2012. So long as he can stay healthy this spring and summer, look for a rejuvenated RGIII to take the field next September. 


In conclusion

Griffin's third season will without a doubt be the most important one of his career. He'll likely have a brand-new coaching staff, a slew of new teammates (those pesky cap sanctions are no more) and larger expectations. 

Plus, he'll be out of excuses. Probably can't blame Shanahan anymore, or those aforementioned cap penalties that docked the 'Skins $36 million worth of spending money the last two years. He'll have better weapons and increased support, and I can guarantee you he'll have a say in who's coaching this team. (That may or may not be healthy, but that's what happens when you mortgage your franchise's future for one superstar quarterback.)

Most importantly, Griffin will enter 2014 with a full offseason under his belt.

Actually, it's starting early. As in right now.