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Wednesday, August 28, 2013
No surprise: RG III set to start opener

By John Keim


Once Robert Griffin III made it through Tuesday’s practice, the final one of the week, with no setbacks, the next move was a mere formality: He would start the Sept. 9 season opener versus Philadelphia. And, Wednesday morning, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that, indeed, this would be the case.

It’s not a surprise. It is, for Redskins fans, a welcome relief mixed with a little angst: Is he indeed ready? Griffin told ESPN 980 radio on Tuesday that he was fully recovered. And that he could run a 4.3 in the 40-yard dash if he were at the combine.

“I would say I'm 100 percent, but you can't put a number on it," he told the station. "No one ever knows when they are 100 percent or what percentage they're playing at. The biggest thing is, I'm not below 100 percent."

Later in the day, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, always a little more forthcoming than his father, said Griffin looked 100 percent to him. Then his dad, head coach Mike Shanahan, followed in his presser a half hour later by talking about how well Griffin has looked in practice the past two days and the noticeable improvement he’s made since training camp started.

“You can see he is in football shape and there hasn’t been a setback, so everything has been very positive,” Mike Shanahan said.

"Football shape" is one of Shanahan’s favorite phrases. Once Griffin was in football shape, any decision on Griffin starting was just a formality. It was going to happen. Griffin will still undergo an examination by Dr. James Andrews when the Redskins visit Tampa Bay on Thursday. One team source said that has not changed. And if Andrews finds anything wrong with Griffin's knee, he won't start. But Andrews has examined him recently and found no setbacks. Nothing has changed, certainly not for the worse.

“I’ve seen much improvement from the first day to where he’s at now from when he first came out -- just in his ability to move, his ability to scramble, just the ease in which he practices,” Shanahan said.

The minute he awoke from surgery, Griffin set a goal to return by Week 1. As shown in his documentary on ESPN on Tuesday, “The Will to Win,” Griffin was consumed with this goal. After a night out in Las Vegas for his bachelor party, when he and his friends rolled in around 5 a.m., Griffin bypassed sleep to work out at UNLV. When Griffin saw the numbers for the Redskins' iron man competition in the offseason, he announced he would set a record. He did.

But there was still the question of whether he could pull it off. Before training camp, I believed he would. Once camp started and we saw how cautious Mike Shanahan was with him, I started wondering what would happen. But the pace has accelerated of late, and the fact that Griffin never took a day off -- which is highly uncommon for players coming off knee surgeries -- sealed the decision.

Robert Griffin III
Quarterback Robert Griffin III will start the Washington Redskins' opener on "Monday Night Football" on Sept. 9 against the Philadelphia Eagles.
There are questions: How will he do without the benefit of the preseason? The Redskins say their practices are better than the games. Indeed, the Redskins showed little of their offense in games last summer. However, Griffin did learn lessons in how to anticipate throws or escape trouble in the pocket. They’re not a total waste, but would he have really benefited from playing one or two series this summer?

In 2004, Redskins backup quarterback Rex Grossman ruptured ligaments in his knee, ending his season. Then, early in the 2005 preseason, he broke his left ankle. He missed the first 13 games before returning -- without the benefit of anything other than practice. Like Griffin.

“I know from my experience coming back, it might take a little bit to knock the rust off, but it’s not going to be a whole game,” said Grossman, who completed 9 of 16 passes for 93 yards in his first game back. “It might be the first half of the first quarter or once you take a hit. Once you get into the rhythm of the game you rely on everything you’ve done to that point to get ready, all the practices and experiences from last year. It all kind of comes back. There might be an initial uneasiness that you wouldn’t normally have, but every first game of the season, every season opener, I don’t care how much you’ve played in the preseason, it’s different and it takes a little while to get going. I don’t think it will be that big a deal.”

The other question surrounds his durability. Can Griffin stay healthy? NFL quarterbacks always are at risk of injury -- as is every other player in the league. There’s no way to guarantee his safety. There’s no way to reprogram one of the more competitive athletes in the league to avoid disaster rather than fight for 2 or 3 extra yards in a crucial spot (as he did against Baltimore, leading to the initial injury on a hit by Haloti Ngata).

But Griffin can help himself as he improves as a passer. His efficiency might not change, but he can limit the scrambles by perhaps diagnosing defenses sooner, going through his progressions just a little quicker and being more comfortable in the offense. The Redskins use some concepts he had at Baylor, but not in the passing game. It was dramatically different in terms of how he had to read the receivers and their routes. There’s plenty of room for growth in a quarterback who completed 65.6 percent of his passes and threw for 3,200 yards and 20 touchdowns to only five interceptions.

“And what hopefully we’ll all see is when it’s not there, sometimes the only play is to throw it out of bounds and save the hit and move on to the next one,” Redskins quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur said.

Another desire by the coaches: keeping the ball alive. This has been a big emphasis this summer with all the quarterbacks. Last year, when Griffin scrambled too often, he’d tuck the ball and take off with his eyes no longer downfield. The defense could then attack him at full speed. And if they’re in a zone, it was easier for them to plant and drive and deliver a more forceful blow. This summer, the Redskins' quarterbacks worked on pump-faking as they approached the line -- and sometimes even after they were a yard or two past the line. Just to keep the defense guessing and perhaps allow them more time and room to slide.

A perfect example: Last year against Tampa Bay, Griffin escaped trouble and, 10 yards behind the line, tucked the ball. The defense started racing toward him, including a corner on receiver Santana Moss. That left Moss uncovered around the 10-yard line -- no one was within 10 yards even as Griffin was 5 yards from the line. But Griffin never saw him and took off. He gained 15 yards to set up a winning field goal. But he could have saved himself a vicious hit by stopping and hitting Moss.

“Trying to keep the defense on their heels,” LaFleur said. “You’ll get a few more yards running, and you might save yourself a hit by going out of bounds.”

This is not all on Griffin, who ran 120 times last season. He needs to know the coaches won’t call a number of designed runs for him -- they did not call any quarterback draws in his final seven games, as much because of how defenses changed to prevent this play.

As Griffin matures in the NFL -- he’s a smart kid who works hard, so there’s no reason to think he won’t -- he can protect himself more than anyone on the sideline. A more explosive passing game will lead to the need for fewer runs. It’s not as though quarterbacks don’t get hit in the pocket; a constant storyline out of Indianapolis last season was the number of hits on quarterback Andrew Luck.

Besides, Griffin learned lessons last year and he still got hurt. On his first 16 scrambles, Griffin was hit nine times. On his last 34, he was hit only 10 times -- after his concussion he ran out of bounds on 14 of the next 17 scrambles. Still, there will be many fans -- and probably a few teammates -- who inhale when Griffin takes off running and exhale only when he stands up. The first time that happens against the Eagles? Look for a big ovation.

Griffin will remain a topic all season. Both he and the Redskins hope it’s for his performance and not his knee. If that’s the case, then you can add his recovery to his growing legend. Not that his teammates will be surprised.

“Everybody gets carried away with everything Robert does,” Moss said. “It’s nothing new for us.”