What's Wrong with Robert Griffin III? Medical Experts Say He Needs More Time

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistSeptember 17, 2013

There are several reasons why the Washington Redskins are 0-2, but the one topping everyone's list pertains to Robert Griffin III. The team's sophomore franchise quarterback just hasn't been himself, which shouldn't be surprising considering Griffin is only eight months removed from surgery to repair the ACL and LCL in his right knee.

Griffin hasn't been the dual threat we're used to, but he has struggled as a pocket passer too, despite facing beatable defenses from Philadelphia and Green Bay.

In order to get a better feel for what's ailing the reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, the Bleacher Report NFC East blog spoke to a handful of medical experts from the United States and Canada, all of whom either specialize in orthopedics, sports medicine or both. That, combined with a study of the tape from the first two weeks, helped us draw some conclusions regarding Griffin's early-season struggles.

The rust factor

Overall, Griffin is off to a slow start this season, but he has also started each game individually at an alarmingly sluggish rate. 

Dr. David Geier, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist based in Charleston, S.C., suggested that a lack of real-game action is a major reason why Griffin has been slow to heat up early on.

"In therapy, you work like crazy on quad strength and hamstring strength on all these different machines to get that back, and you try to replicate that with all these functional drills to replicate football," said Geier, who performs over 100 knee procedures a year. "But at the end of the day, it's not the reps on a football field. You can get traditional muscle strength back, but it's that dynamic stability, that muscle strength of actually doing the motions on the field, that just takes time."

Thus, we might not have to worry about Griffin's passing ability or his throwing mechanics on a long-term basis. He missed the entire preseason, so that timing will slowly come back as he becomes re-acclimated. The fact that his second-half numbers have been tremendous thus far indicates it's just about becoming more comfortable.

Sure, he went the wrong way on a red-zone snap here against the Packers, costing his team four yards:

And he made a silly, uncharacteristic throw with the numbers out of his favor on this first-half interception against the Eagles:

But he should eliminate those passing miscues as he regains his grip on the offense. His second-half performances are proof of that.

He's also been a little more effective as a runner in the second half. He's yet to run for anything more than a marginal gain in the first half, but he has found a way to run for 12 yards once and eight yards twice in the second half. He also had an eight-yard second-half run against Green Bay negated by a facemask penalty.

Still, his broad running numbers have fallen way off. He's posted two of his five lowest single-game rushing totals to start this season, and he's literally never taking off on zone-read option plays. 

It could be that opposing defenses are stepping it up against the read-option, or it could that the Redskins have shifted their offensive philosophy early this season in order to protect Griffin. You might even be able to chalk it up to the fact the 'Skins were trailing by huge margins early in both cases.

But it's also possible Griffin isn't fast or strong enough right now to take off from a flat-footed standstill, which is required of any quarterback who plans on running off zone-read snaps. 

Griffin had an opening early against Green Bay Sunday, but he couldn't escape Clay Matthews in the backfield and had to settle for a two-yard gain:

Later, he was slow breaking out of the pocket after being flushed out. Ordinarily, you'd expect RG3 to run for a first down up the right side here, but instead he threw a low-percentage pass that landed incomplete:

B/R lead sports medicine writer Will Carroll notes that athletes don't typically lose speed over a long-term basis as a result of reconstructive knee surgery, but that "he's likely not to his maximum improvement."

"Where the ACL comes into play is landing from a jump or planting your foot and cutting on it," adds Geier. "So a lot of times, straightforward running is OK, but as they go to plant their foot and turn, they just don't get that back as quickly. They ultimately get it, but it takes time."

You might have noticed that Griffin has only run successfully on scrambles. In those cases, he hasn't had much of a choice and has had an opportunity to gain speed gradually. One example came on that eight-yard run negated by a penalty in the Green Bay game:

Another came when he picked up a first down in the second half of the Eagles game:

In both cases, Griffin hit something that resembles his top speed while running in a straight line. He isn't being asked to go from zero to 60 at the snap, and he isn't having to pivot to launch himself into the run. Right now, it appears he requires extra time to get into his top gear.

"He'll probably be slower because he's been through fairly massive surgery," noted Toronto-based orthopedic surgeon Tim Dwyer, "and it'll take time for his muscle strength like hamstrings and quads to get back to normal."

Some of it is in his head

"Confidence is the last thing to return," said Dr. Robert Marx, who is a professor of orthopedic surgery at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York, "and if the athlete is tentative, they may not perform as well as normal."

This is undeniable. We've seen Griffin finish awkwardly, almost as if he's protecting his right leg from danger:

"The other thing apart from just not having the strength is trust and in your head," said Dwyer. "Studies have shown that people are worried about their knee, which makes sense. So he may just be being a little bit more careful as well."

We've seen terrible timing with his receivers. On this third-down throw against the Packers, Griffin faced limited pressure but tossed it to absolutely nobody:

That, too, could be rust-related, but it could also be that Griffin is distracted by the injury. As CBS analyst Steve Tasker pointed out last week, via RealRedskins.com, few of us realize that the man is essentially having to adjust to a brand-new knee.

He's also passing up opportunities to run. This would have been a run when Griffin was healthy last year, yet he threw an incomplete pass instead:

Another example came later when he decided to throw what ended up being a checkdown for a loss of four yards. The Griffin we're used to would have certainly tried to hit the weak side with his legs, and he probably would have been able to pick up the first down:

"They have to feel confident," added Dr. David McAllister, an orthopedic surgeon at the UCLA Medical Center with special expertise in knee ligament injuries. "They have to feel like that knee is not a question mark when they go to plant, pivot or change direction."

Don't forget that he's dealing with this too:

"To me, he looks like he's adjusting to the leg and brace, screwing up his mechanics a bit," said Carroll. "He lacks full confidence in the knee, which should come. Sometimes it just clicks." 

The Adrian Peterson effect

It feels as though it "clicked" for Adrian Peterson faster, but it really didn't. Peterson was the MVP last year despite undergoing reconstructive knee surgery eight months prior to the start of the year, just like Griffin.

Few remember, though, that Peterson was held to fewer than 90 yards rushing in five of his first six games. He also needed time to adjust after sitting out the preseason. Yes, he was still productive early and became a stud later, but there are some differences to keep in mind:

1. That was Peterson's first major knee procedure. Griffin has now undergone two surgeries on the same knee.

2. Griffin had his LCL repaired too. According to Geier, that takes the recovery to a whole new level.

3. Griffin had a little less time to heal than Peterson did. Only a week less, but it all counts.

4. Peterson's recovery didn't set a new standard. It was an anomaly, and it might have screwed with the hopes of a lot of Redskins fans a year later.

"He's the aberration," said McAllister. "That's not the norm. People don't usually come back the first season at any level—high school, college or pro—a year after ligament surgery and have a career season. That just doesn't really happen. So what happened with Adrian Peterson last season, I don't really have a good explanation for, but I will tell you that that's not normally what we see."

Various definitions of "100 percent"

But why did Griffin say prior to the season that he was "not below 100 percent"? It's possible he thought he was healthier than he actually was, but it's also possible he was being both truthful and correct. All of the experts we spoke to Monday agreed that there's a difference between the repaired ligaments being "100 percent" and the patient himself being "100 percent."

"They're cleared to return at a certain point," said Geier, "but you don't really see them get back to the level they were before for another few months."

It's somewhat of a semantics problem. Maybe Griffin's knee is fully healed, but that doesn't mean he is comfortable in an offense he was forced to watch from the sideline all offseason, and it also doesn't mean the surrounding muscles and ligaments have regained the strength they possessed prior to surgery.

"This is kind of what I would expect," said McAllister. "Will he get better and progress over the season? He might, but it might be another year before he looks more like himself."

Unsurprisingly, Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan already has to answer questions regarding Griffin's status as the team's starting quarterback. While it might be true that backup Kirk Cousins could be just as effective right now, everything above suggests this is something Griffin will have to battle through.

RG3 has to shake off the rust and continue to reach new plateaus in his recovery, so it would be counterintuitive to bench him now. The 'Skins are better off facing these struggles right now against teams like Detroit than in December against opponents like the Cowboys, Giants and Falcons.

The key is to be patient and keep a couple things in mind: Griffin is only 23, and this team won the division a year ago despite starting 3-6.