LANDOVER, Md. -- The night held such promise for Robert Griffin III. As the crowd cheered his name during introductions Monday, Griffin kneeled and pounded the turf, as if he was about to do something he couldn’t believe. Like play a game exactly eight months after surgery. He paused and hustled down the field, waving a big Redskins flag.
And then it became a night of more questions, and a lot of nit-picking, that one game won’t answer. Was Griffin still hurt? Was the quarterback just rusty? Was he planting and driving when throwing the ball? Was his timing off? Let the debating begin.
This wasn’t what anyone expected, least of all Griffin. Not after the journey back. Not after knowing how hard he had worked to return in eight months after knee surgery. And not after his history. Griffin was used to accomplishing grand things in big moments. This qualified as a big moment.
Instead, he was left to defend his game and night and to soothe the worries of Redskins fans. What he didn’t do is point to his surgically repaired right knee as a reason why he struggled early. Yes, Griffin completed 30-of-49 passes for 329 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Respectable numbers, indeed. But he was just 5-of-11 for 53 yards in the first half.
“I’m responsible for the way I play,” Griffin said. “I didn’t play very well in the first half. You move on from it. I’m not going to sit here and say I was rusty. I have to be accountable for that.”
Griffin threw the ball much better when we saw him in training camp. Early in camp, he sometimes did not step and drive into the ball the way he had when throwing last season -- and the way he did as camp unfolded. The coaches noticed it, too; quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur even pointed it out (after the fact). But when camp ended, and the media got its last good look at Griffin, those issues appeared to have ended. His timing seemed off, but the knee appeared sound and he could drive when throwing the ball. Some might still question Griffin’s playing; those people did not see him in camp.
However, Griffin was not really placed in live action at game speed until Monday night, having not played in the preseason. It makes a difference for anyone, even a second-year quarterback who many think wears an "S" on his chest. The Redskins aren’t second-guessing their decision not to play him in the preseason, either.
“The one thing I look at is that I’m hoping he’s going to be with us for a while,” Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said. “Our priority was getting him ready for the season and not putting him in there too quick. We would be quite disappointed if he got hurt the second week of camp, and then we’d be talking about, ‘Why did you practice Robert when he might not have been ready?’ He was ready to play. He looked like he was in good shape.”
Some plays stood out for Griffin, both good and bad. He made a decision on his first interception that he rarely, if ever, made a year ago -- throwing into triple coverage to Santana Moss down the middle. The ball had no chance of being completed. On his second interception, Griffin did not put a lot of zip on a pass to the outside. Corner Cary Williams made a terrific read and a diving grab.
At times, Griffin did not seem to plant and drive on his throws, or transfer his weight to his front foot. Sometimes it’s hard to do so in the pocket; sometimes a quarterback must throw from different angles. But was it a trust issue for him with his knee? Only Griffin knows, and he insists that wasn't the case. Still, for Griffin, it was an uneven performance. And when you’re coming back from an injury, everything will round back to that issue, whether it’s real or imagined. Griffin knows until he plays well for a full game -- until he shows his old form -- there will be doubts, there will be questions. He's not about to feed them.
“I was comfortable out there and I felt good,” Griffin said. “I was able to escape the pocket and move around.”
The Eagles threw some unexpected pressures at him, showing looks the Redskins would call undisciplined. They worked. They made Griffin look a little slower with his reactions, which led to more questions: Could he cut the same after surgery on his anterior cruciate ligament?
Keep in mind, though, that Griffin had some lousy first halves last season, too. Against Cincinnati in his home debut, for example, Griffin completed 5-of-10 passes for 36 yards in the opening half. But, back then, he wasn’t coming off an injury, and the focus was more on the Bengals’ defense, not Griffin’s knee.
“I think just we didn’t play well,” Griffin said. “You guys can sit here and pick apart technique. Is he rusty? Did he not play well enough? I just think we didn’t play well in the first half at all. There’s no other way around it.”
But as Griffin got warmed up in the second half, he found his rhythm. He eluded pressure on a third-down pass in the fourth quarter, sidestepping the rush the way he did in 2012, though the ball fell incomplete. Griffin’s second touchdown pass was a thing of beauty. It required touch and rhythm as he dropped a perfect 24-yarder over the top of a safety to receiver Leonard Hankerson in the back of the end zone. He was delivering more passes on target, in rhythm. Still, there had to be some consequence for not playing in the preseason, or not practicing against a full defense until three weeks ago. Even for a talent such as Griffin. The first half qualified.
“He did a great job,” Shanahan said, “for not playing [in the preseason]. He made some big-time plays.”
There just weren’t enough. And they came too late.