Whose job is it to keep RG III safe?
June, 13, 2013
By Dan Graziano | ESPN.com
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsAfter one season, QB Robert Griffin III and his coaches are learning a lot about each other's faults.ASHBURN, Va. -- Blame can do a lot of damage when there's raw emotion behind it, and the early part of the Washington Redskins' offseason strayed into that territory. Coach Mike Shanahan said something at the league meetings about the need for quarterback Robert Griffin III to do more to protect himself. It got back to Griffin, who had just undergone major reconstructive knee surgery, in a way that ruffled him. Griffin sent a text to Trey Wingo about the responsibility of "all parties involved" in his season-ending knee injury. Things got a little dicey.
A person I spoke to at Redskins minicamp this week told me Shanahan and Griffin met shortly thereafter to clear the air, though I couldn't get any more details than that. When I asked Shanahan about it he brushed me off, probably because he doesn't think it's any of our business. And I think that's the critical takeaway here -- that Griffin and his coaching staff need to be on the same page and in regular communication about the way his health and safety are managed moving forward. Bickering back and forth in public is surely not the way to go, though it makes good copy for those of us who write about the league. Inside the Redskins' building, the best thing for everyone is to get along and continue to win games and make tons of money together.
Still, the messaging seems a little rough around the edges. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was surprisingly defiant Wednesday in defense of the zone read. Asked basically whether the staff needed to cut back on that part of the offense in order to reduce Griffin's exposure to hits, Kyle asserted that the zone read helps protect the quarterback and pointed out that the plays on which Griffin got hurt last year were pass plays on which he decided to scramble.
"I’m Robert's coach, so it's my job to help him with everything," Kyle Shanahan said. "It's not just Robert. I think it's every quarterback who has ever played the game. I mean, guys have got to get used to sliding, knowing when to fight for yards and when not to fight for yards. I think a lot of rookie quarterbacks, it takes time to get that feel. They learn through experience, and I think Robert had a lot of experience last year and I think he'll definitely be better from that. We'll keep harping on it and I think it'll come natural for him."
"The good part of what Kyle says here is that he involves himself and the coaching staff in the process. Acknowledging that it's their job to help Griffin learn to protect himself better is key, because it doesn't sound as though they're heaping all of the blame and responsibility on the player, and we know the player doesn't like that. But I still wondered, after listening to Kyle, whether the Redskins' coaches had yet to come to grips with their own level of responsibility for what happened with Griffin last year. Forget the obvious -- that he should have been removed from the playoff game considerably earlier than he was. In the big picture, it seems fair to say that reducing the number of plays on which Griffin has the option to run would be wise if you're trying to limit his exposure to hits. Kyle's logic is based on the idea that the quarterback takes off running on zone-read plays only when he knows he's safe (because the defense is accounting for everyone but him). But I think he's still assuming a lot if he trusts his quarterback -- even one as gifted as Griffin is -- to always make the right decision.
My main job is protecting him (RG III). And we're not going to do things to put him at risk." -- Redskins coach Mike Shanahan
Shanahan's father, the head coach, was a bit more reasoned about all of this when I spoke to him later in the day. He said the point was to keep the zone-read portion of the offense alive as a threat in the mind of the defense, something he thinks they could do by running it only once or twice a game.
"It all depends on how many times you run it," Mike Shanahan said. "We've got the zone read in there to slow down the pass rush, to slow down the reactions of the defense. When the quarterback runs it, that is an option he has, he's got the ability to go the distance, because the only way you're going to stop it is by taking your free safety out of the middle of the field or having some adjustments that are just designed to stop the zone read. And if they do that, you don't have to run it. Sometimes it appears you're running it and you're really not -- you're just handing the ball away. So to have that deception with your offense gives you another tool. Even if we weren't going to run it, I would tell everybody we were going to run it."
Fair enough, and we'll see where this all goes. But if the Redskins' coaching staff is going to insist that it or its schemes played no role in Griffin's injuries or will pose no threat to his safety going forward, then issues are going to continue to arise between player and coach, and it's not going to be good for the franchise. They need to polish their message, and they need to make sure they're not telling us anything they haven't already told Griffin to his face. They need to make sure it never sounds as though they're blaming him and not themselves.
"My main job is protecting him," Mike Shanahan said. "And we're not going to do things to put him at risk. But I guarantee you one thing: I'm going to be coaching him a little bit harder that he'd better slide a little bit earlier. I would rather you pick up 6 yards than 10 yards and get hit. And a lot of these guys, they understand a little bit more after they go through it."
Griffin's understanding is sure to improve. But it's equally important that his coaches remain open-minded about improving their own understanding of their role in keeping him safe. He's an amazing player and a remarkable young man, but he's also just 23 years old. There's no one who's ever been 23 who didn't still need the help of people who knew more than he did.