LANDOVER, Md. -- Robert Griffin III spotted something in the defense, a safety playing too close to the line of scrimmage, and wanted to take a shot deep. Except that, when he started to throw the ball, the play he thought he had was no longer there. A Chicago Bears cornerback had dropped to a spot Griffin didn’t expect.
It was too late. The ball was out of his hands. And then something happened, the sort of thing that always seemed to happen in 2012 for Griffin and the Redskins, but not this season. The safety trailing the receiver, Chris Conte, slipped and fell, and the corner, Charles Tillman, didn’t get back quite far enough. Aldrick Robinson came down in the end zone with a 45-yard touchdown pass in Washington’s 45-41 win over the Chicago Bears.
It was that sort of day. Everything worked out for Griffin, just like it had most weeks last season. Just like it has not for much of this season. Not that Griffin had been horrible, but, coming off his January knee surgery, there have been ups and downs. Griffin ran well against Dallas but did not throw the ball well. He struggled in the first half of games. He didn’t run the ball much the first four games.
In short, the Griffin that the NFL saw last year had not played a complete game this season -- until Sunday. Griffin said afterward that he had regained his 2012 playing form.
“Without a doubt,” he said. “We had a feeling about this game. I know I did. I talked to the guys before the game about having a breakthrough. We needed that breakthrough.”
He completed 18 of 29 passes for 298 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He also ran 11 times for 84 yards, his highest output of the season. In fact, after rushing 18 times for 72 yards in the first four games, Griffin has carried 20 times for 161 yards in the past two. Griffin wasn’t perfect. He didn’t see Tillman on his interception, for example, and had that pass to Robinson been intercepted, well ...
But it wasn’t picked off. And he did finish well and threw a perfect fade to rookie tight end Jordan Reed for a 3-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
“That’s the breakthrough I feel I’ve had for myself,” Griffin said. “I’m proud of that, to just go out there and play with your instincts. That’s what I meant when I said [earlier in the week] that’s what got me here and that’s what made me the player that I am.”
The Redskins were desperate for that player to return, entering Sunday with a 1-4 record. It’s not hyperbolic to say their season depended on the outcome. If the Redskins had lost, any legitimate chance of a playoff chase would have evaporated. It'll still be tough, but if Griffin plays this way more often, then the Redskins at least have hope.
When Griffin plays well, the trickle-down impact on everyone else is tremendous. It’s about his talent: Defenses must now deal with a quarterback who can run and throw. It’s about the Redskins' mentality: They never feel out of a game.
“So much success was based off how he played, so to see him playing well and believing in himself makes me feel better,” Redskins tight end Logan Paulsen said. “It makes me feel confident that we can pull the game out in the last minutes like we did today. Schematically it’s invaluable, and psychologically it’s so beneficial to us.”
Yes, schematically it was invaluable. Griffin burned Chicago on the zone-read option, taking advantage of the Bears' playing man coverage and leaving the outside vulnerable. The zone-read option still works. The Bears, for example, played it the way Griffin saw it defended while he was at Baylor, with the end crashing on the running back and the two linebackers scraping outside. The problem was that the Bears kept focusing on Alfred Morris, and Griffin would escape wide. On one run, outside linebacker Lance Briggs stared inside and then jumped that way as Griffin ran outside.
In that case, all Griffin must do is beat one linebacker. The way Griffin is running now, that isn’t a problem.
But it was not just about his running the zone read. Griffin’s legs extended plays, none bigger than the third-and-5 pass to receiver Pierre Garcon with 2:32 to play in the fourth quarter. It was a similar situation to one versus Detroit in which Griffin escaped pressure to the right and threw an interception on the run to Garcon. This time, Griffin, again eluding pressure, threw a bullet to Garcon for a 7-yard gain. On a third-and-1 three plays later, Griffin handed to Morris on a zone read; the defense keyed on Griffin and a hole opened for Morris en route to 9 yards.
In all, Griffin completed five of seven passes for 58 yards on the game-winning drive. It’s one thing for the Redskins to have won this game. With Bears quarterback Jay Cutler missing most of the game with a groin injury, it would have been expected. But the way they won, with Griffin playing the way he did and winning the game with a late drive, it’s the boost they’ve craved for weeks.
“I felt we couldn’t be stopped tonight,” Redskins guard Kory Lichtensteiger said. “All the way until the end, even when our backs were against the wall and time’s running out and it’s third-and-long, you still feel like we’re gonna get this, we’re playing too well. [With Griffin] making big throws and making plays with his feet, it makes our offense so dynamic. I wouldn’t want to play against our offense the way we played today.”
Translation: Griffin played well and everything else followed suit. For this season to truly turn around, Griffin needs a lot more games like Sunday.
“This is Robert Griffin,” fullback Darrel Young said. “This is what makes him who he is.”