The problem with Robert Griffin III is that we all grew prematurely giddy, prepared to anoint him as a prominent face of Young America before he was even an established NFL quarterback. Not only was he going to lead the Washington Redskins to a Super Bowl, he would run for President someday. You almost wish he had performed his rookie wonders in an outpost such as Arizona or Tampa Bay, where he wouldn’t have been projected so quickly and disproportionately.
In Washington, where the burden to excel extends to politicians who don’t know football, Griffin was rushed into a bubble. He was the most efficient of the read-option, dual-threat quarterbacks, and when he led the Redskins to the playoffs, he was exploded from a cannon into an unrealistic realm. Maybe he would have reached it had he not injured his knee in a postseason game and coach Mike Shanahan, in a decision that will haunt him forevermore, ignored his own instincts and obeyed Griffin’s unwise plea to stay in the game while basically hobbling on one leg. The result was offseason reconstructive knee surgery. From that point on, an immature young man was at his odds with his coach, which wasn’t fair to Shanahan, who had listened to Griffin that day out of respect for his young star.
All of which reached the point where last week, amid a season in which he was slower and ineffective running the ball and no longer a player worthy of a GQ cover, the face of Young America sounded like someone trying to get his coach fired and unwilling to accept blame. Asked why the Redskins couldn’t move the ball in falling behind 17-0 at halftime to the Philadelphia Eagles, Griffin blurted this about the game plan: “You have to give credit where credit is due to Philly. They did a good job of scheming us up. Obviously, we were able to run the ball effectively, but in the passing game, they kind of had us. They kind of knew what was coming before it was coming and, that is disheartening. But we still have to find ways, and that’s what I told the guys — no matter what’s going on out there, we’re the players, we have to make the plays work.”
He was called out by a veteran Redskins receiver, Santana Moss, who said on a Washington radio station, “If we’re going to win games, we need to win games with our guy saying, `At the end of the day, I didn’t make a play,’ regardless of if it wasn’t him. And that’s how I feel. Because that’s what we’re out there to do. … As a leader, you understand that if you’re involved in the situation, whether you’re the receiver, the quarterback, the guys making the tackle, whoever — regardless of the outcome, good or bad, you have to at some point, stand up and say me or I.”
Because while the Redskins are not 3-8 entirely because of Griffin’s problems, he has inherited the mantle of responsibility by playing poorly after an offseason of selling sandwiches, athletic apparel and cars. Great athletes return from knee surgery to do marvelous things. Griffin has not. Monday, on a night when another struggling subject of a GQ cover, Colin Kaepernick, quieted his own critics, Griffin started a home game against the 49ers with five incompletions in his first six attempts. His first-quarter interception led to another sluggish performance — 17 of 27 passing, 127 yards, four sacks, one kick in the groin courtesy of Aldon Smith — in a 27-6 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. This time, Griffin accepted his share of the blame.
“We’ve got to conquer some of the demons that we have going on as an offense and just as a team in general — and I think we will,” he said. “It takes all of us.”
But he also went on the defensive Monday, saying “people are trying to character assassinate” him when asked about an NFL Network report that he didn’t want his failed plays to be shown to the team on the projector during meetings. If true, Griffin is a player who can’t accept and process his mistakes. He won’t progress that way.
With the Redskins in disarray on both sides of the ball, Shanahan and his son, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, must move along. To have any chance of rescuing RG3, the impulsive owner, Daniel Snyder, will have to find a coach who can re-develop Griffin’s talents and help him grow. Maybe that isn’t possible if the knee surgery has permanently robbed Griffin of his running skills, which made him so dangerous last season in the passing game. But Snyder will identify a scapegoat after the season, and it sure as hell won’t be Griffin, despite 11 interceptions that signal a crisis in the house.
“We haven’t got dominated like that since I’ve been here,” said Shanahan, per the Associated Press, almost sounding his own death knell after the latest defeat.
The read-option offense, a device that became a fad last season, has died quickly thanks to defensive coordinators who studied the scheme in the offseason and effectively buried it. If Griffin has been lost in trying to pass his way through his running issues, Kaepernick at least is leading the 49ers toward another postseason berth. After a brilliant passing performance against befuddled Green Bay in Week One, he slumped without a full compliment of receivers and was relegated to game management duties by his creator and enabler, coach Jim Harbaugh. Monday, Kaepernick looked more like the revolutionary force who led the 49ers to within five yards of a Super Bowl championship, shrugging off his own critics by completing 15 of 24 passes for 235 yards and three touchdowns.
“I did comment to him in the middle of the week … that he was being exactly perfect — leadership and demeanor-wise,” Harbaugh said. “A combination of loose and focused. … Some people have baby deer skin. Some people have armadillo skin. He’s got the armadillo skin.”
Said tight end Vernon Davis, per the AP: “Colin, he’s been taking a lot of criticism, but one thing I like about Colin, he’s always hanging in there. He’s always fighting through adversity. He’s one of those guys who’s tough.”
If Kaepernick can maintain a consistent passing rhythm, the 49ers still have a chance to be relevant in the playoffs. They almost surely will be a wild-card team, but how scary would they be to one of the survivors of two flimsy divisions, the NFC North and East? Harbaugh seemed to lose trust in Kaepernick after some earlier struggles, emphasizing running back Frank Gore in a power offense and allowing his team to sink to last in passing yardage. There still is time to become a balanced attack again. “It’s great to say, `OK, we played well in a certain area.’ But going into this one, it was by any means necessary,” Harbaugh said. “And our guys rose up to the challenge and got it done.”
It could be Griffin never recovers from the knee injury and isn’t salvageable. The Redskins at least have to try to save him. It’s sad that Shanahan will depart from the sport in failure, but let this be a lesson to all coaches: When a young quarterback thinks he knows it all and wants to stay in a game, yank him anyway.