NFL Nation: Robert Griffin III

Our weekly attempt to expose and explore the gray area involved in officiating NFL games. Sunday suggestions welcome via Twitter (@SeifertESPN). For all Inside Slant posts, including the weekly Officiating Review, follow this link.

Play: San Francisco 49ers linebacker Nick Moody penalized for roughing the passer after hitting Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.
Referee: Ed Hochuli
Analysis: Moody blitzed Wilson and hit him an instant after release of the ball on a key third-down play in the red zone. Slow-motion replays show Moody's helmet and face mask made contact with Wilson's chest at the level of his No. 3.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
Elaine Thompson/AP PhotoWeek 15 games had several questionable calls, including a roughing the passer penalty by the 49ers on Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.
Standing in his position behind Wilson, Hochuli craned his neck to view contact he appeared to be blocked from seeing. In announcing the penalty, Hochuli said Moody put his "helmet on the chest of the quarterback." The call was counterintuitive to the general public assumption that the NFL wants defensive players to avoid hits to the head and neck, which Moody did. He lowered his 6-foot-1 frame enough to hit the 5-foot-10 Wilson well below that priority area.

Most of us know that the NFL prohibits a defender from lowering his head and hitting a quarterback with the crown of his helmet. Moody avoided that type of contact as well. So what, if anything, did he do wrong? In speaking to a pool reporter afterward, Hochuli referenced contact by the "hairline" of Moody's helmet.

That explanation seemed to reference a lesser-known part of the NFL's rules for roughing the passer. Here's what Rule 12, Section 2, Article 9(c) provides as one cause for penalty:
"A defensive player must not use his helmet against a passer who is in a defenseless posture -- for example, (1) forcibly hitting the passer's head or neck area with the helmet or face mask, even if the initial contact of the defender's helmet or face mask is lower than the passer's neck, and regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the passer by encircling or grasping him; or (2) lowering the head and making forcible contact with the top/crown or forehead/'hairline' parts of the helmet against any part of the passer's body. This rule does not prohibit incidental contact by the mask or non-crown parts of the helmet in the course of a conventional tackle on a passer."

If you freeze the replay at the point of contact, you basically see Moody's face in Wilson's chest. Was the head lowered? No. But did the hairline make forcible contact, as Hochuli implied?

That would be an exceptionally difficult argument to make, one that and not even vice president of officiating Dean Blandino was willing to make. Speaking Monday morning on the NFL Network, Blandino said: "Moody's head is up, he hits with more of the side and the face mask to the body of the quarterback, and in our review, with the ability to look at it in slow motion, it's not a foul."

Entering Week 15, Hochuli's crew was tied for the second-fewest roughing the passer calls in the NFL. So it's not as if he has been trigger-happy on such calls this season. Did he truly see hairline contact by Moody during live action? Based on his positioning to the play, that seems unlikely. Or did he see it postgame via replay, prior to speaking to the pool reporter? I'll let you ruminate on that one.

Play: Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is ruled to have fumbled at the goal line.
Referee: Jeff Triplette
Analysis: Griffin attempted to run for a touchdown near the right pylon just before halftime against the New York Giants. Holding the ball with his right hand at the 3-yard line, Griffin started to extend toward the goal line. He brought his left hand up to secure the ball but ended up losing possession for a moment.

Although Griffin regained control as he went airborne into the end zone, the ball again squirted loose when he landed. By the time he grabbed it for the final time, both Griffin and the ball were out of bounds.

The play happened fast, and Triplette's crew originally ruled it a touchdown. A replay review, however, provided a clear view of what happened. Once again, we're left to explain the NFL's quirky "process" rule that applies to possession of a ball when going to the ground.

We discussed this last week relative to a loose ball involving Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. As a reminder, here is part of what Rule 3, Section 2, Article 7, Note 1 reads:
"A player who goes to the ground in the process of attempting to secure possession of a loose ball [with or without contact by an opponent] must maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, there is no possession."

While Griffin did regain possession, his initial bobble made the play fundamentally different than a runner who crosses into the end zone without first fumbling. That instance is a touchdown, and anything that happens afterward is moot. Griffin, however, had the added requirement of maintaining possession through "the process of contacting the ground," and as counterintuitive as that might seem, he clearly did not hit that threshold. With a big assist from replay, Triplette landed on the right call according to the rulebook.

Play: The Buffalo Bills are awarded a safety late in the fourth quarter against the Green Bay Packers.
Referee: Bill Leavy
Analysis: Bills defensive end Mario Williams knocked the ball away from Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers at the 3-yard line. The ball bounced back into the end zone, where Packers running back Eddie Lacy picked it up and tried to run with it.

It's not clear if Lacy got the ball out of the end zone before he was tackled, but it was a moot point. The play was the first after the two-minute warning, which triggered an exception to the rules for advancing a fumble.

Rule 8, Section 7, Article 6 states that the offensive team can only advance a fumble after the two-minute warning if it's by the player who fumbled. Otherwise, the ball is dead at either the spot of the fumble or at the spot of the recovery, whichever is further back.

So in this case, Rodgers was the only player who could have advanced the ball out of the end zone and avoided a safety. Leavy was correct to whistle the play dead as soon as Lacy touched it.

The origin of this seemingly random exception is the 1978 "Holy Roller" play, when two Oakland Raiders teammates batted the ball some 24 yards into the end zone after a Kenny Stabler fumble. Raiders tight end Dave Casper fell on it for a touchdown. There was some controversy about whether the Raiders intentionally pushed the ball toward the end zone, but the NFL amended its rules the following year to eliminate the incentive to do so in a potential game-winning situation.
DAVIE, Fla. -- Let's travel back two years ago with the Miami Dolphins: It is 2012 and no secret that they're in desperate need of a quarterback in the NFL draft. The Chad Henne fiasco just ended and Miami hired a new head coach in Joe Philbin, who needed a quarterback to start his program.

The Dolphins, along with most likely 31 other teams, had Robert Griffin III rated higher than Ryan Tannehill. In fact, many believed it was a reach when Miami selected Tannehill No. 8 overall after Andrew Luck and Griffin were taken off the board with the first two picks by the Indianapolis Colts and Washington Redskins, respectively. Both were viewed as future superstars, and Tannehill was more of a project with just 19 career starts at Texas A&M.

However, three seasons later, the Dolphins are better off with Tannehill than Griffin. Tannehill will start his 44th consecutive game for Miami (6-5) when it faces the New York Jets on ESPN's “Monday Night Football.”

Things haven't been perfect, but Tannehill has gradually improved each season and is on pace for a career year in 2014. He has thrown for 2,582 yards, 20 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. His passer rating is 93.4.

Most important, Tannehill still offers hope that he can be Miami's long-term solution at quarterback. He's playing arguably the best football of his career with a 4-2 record over his past six games.

“Yeah, I think he’s been playing better,” Philbin said of Tannehill. “I think he's been playing better for probably even a hair longer than that. Certainly, he’s been throwing the ball accurately and doing a good job running the offense.”

Griffin’s chances of doing the same for the Redskins have all but disappeared since he was benched this week in favor of third-string quarterback Colt McCoy. Griffin struggled the past two seasons since returning from major knee surgery. He has a 13-20 record as a starter, including a 4-14 mark in 2013 and 2014.

Granted, Tannehill also must win more games. He is 21-22 as a starter. But Tannehill's individual stats are up across the board in assistant Bill Lazor's new offense. Tannehill also has Miami in playoff contention in December for the second consecutive season.

“I don't know exactly how my numbers look, [but] I feel more and more comfortable the more games we play,” Tannehill said. “The guys around me are making plays right now. The line is protecting me. The run game is going pretty well. So when the guys around you are making plays and you can just get them the ball in space, it makes it a lot more fun to be a quarterback.”

The Dolphins will have a decision to make on Tannehill's future soon. He's under contract next season and the team must decide if it wants to pick up Tannehill’s fifth-year option. Miami also can determine if it wants to work out a long-term contract instead. Those choices are all in play.

But the Redskins apparently made a decision that Griffin is not the long-term solution at quarterback in Washington. It’s an interesting contrast of two third-year quarterbacks -- just six draft slots apart -- heading in opposite directions.

LANDOVER, Md. -- Ever since he was hired in January, we've heard Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith talk about "Buc Ball."

For the first nine games of the season, it looked as if the definition of that was to go out and play bad football. If the Bucs weren't getting routed, they were squandering fourth-quarter leads.

[+] EnlargeMike Evans
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesMike Evans' effort helped seal a Buccaneers victory that was driven by their defense.
But Sunday's 27-7 victory over the Washington Redskins showed everyone what Buc Ball is supposed to look like. With rookie wide receiver Mike Evans playing the role of closer, Tampa Bay's defense set the stage for a win with its best performance of the season.

"It just shows us what we're capable of," defensive end Michael Johnson said. "We can be very dangerous when we do that. We've got a lot of talented players together like that. When it all goes together, it's kind of an orchestra, a symphony, sweet music."

What Buc Ball is made up of is an aggressive and opportunistic defense coupled with an efficient offense. The Bucs took the offense to extra heights, thanks to Evans, who finished with seven catches for 209 yards.

"[Evans] is just special," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "I'll just leave it at that."

Evans' two second-half touchdowns sealed the victory, but the defense already had the Bucs in control. It started on the first play of the game when linebacker Danny Lansanah intercepted a pass by Robert Griffin III to set up a quick field goal.

The 2-8 Bucs, who have been notoriously slow starters, followed up with cornerback Johnthan Banks returning a Griffin interception for a touchdown with 3:56 left in the first quarter.

The defensive heroics didn't end there. The Bucs also recovered a fumble and sacked Griffin six times.

"Our defense going on the field and getting a quick takeaway kind of set the tone," Smith said. "We haven't been able to take the ball away as much as we need to on the defensive side. Thought we had great pressure from our front. The front kind of set the tempo as much as anything."

That tempo might have been set by McCoy, who had 1.5 sacks. The unquestioned leader of the defense, McCoy gave a pregame speech that apparently hit home.

"It was the attitude," McCoy said. "I talked to the group before we went out there and told them we have to have a different type of attitude. We just took the attitude of, we expect to win, and we went out there and did what we had to do."

The Bucs did something else they hadn't been doing -- protected a lead. This is the same team that had blown fourth-quarter leads in each of the last three games and five times this season.

"We talk about 'play 60,'" Smith said. "Sixty good minutes. We haven't been able to start the game and finish it at the same time."

This time, the Bucs started and finished well. It was evidence that Buc Ball really can work.

"That's what they're supposed to do," Smith said. "That's our style of ball."
Our weekly attempt to expose and explore the gray area involved in officiating NFL games. Sunday suggestions welcome via Twitter (@SeifertESPN). For all Inside Slant posts, including the weekly Officiating Review, follow this link.

Play: San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick fumbles on a goal-line quarterback sneak
Referee: Jerome Boger
Analysis: This play capped an eventful day for Boger and his crew. Attempting to score the winning touchdown, Kaepernick bobbled the snap, regained control of the ball and dove over the goal line. At some point between regaining control and landing on the ground, Kaepernick fumbled again. St. Louis Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis came out of the pile with the ball and was awarded possession.

[+] EnlargeColin Kaepernick
AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez49ers QB Colin Kaepernick fumbles on a goal-line sneak in the final seconds against the Rams.
The question is whether Kaepernick lost the ball before or after crossing the goal line. If it was after, the ruling is a touchdown. Anything that happens afterward is moot. If it happened before, then it is a fumble and a loss of possession.

Kaepernick told reporters he crossed the line first, but you wouldn't expect him to say anything different.

The replay demonstrates the officiating mechanics that led to the decision: Head linesman Tom Staible and line judge Ed Walker are aligned on the goal line to determine if the ball broke the plane before Kaepernick was down. Umpire Tony Michalek was standing about 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage and clearly sees the fumble. Michalek consulted with back judge Tony Steratore, whose responsibility is tracking loose balls, before signaling a touchdown.

There is no evidence that Michalek consulted with Staible or Walker, suggesting he saw Kaepernick lose possession before it was visible to television viewers. In this case, he apparently didn't need to confirm whether Kaepernick was in possession at the goal line. Given the tight formation at the snap, and the resulting crunch of bodies, no replay angle offered a conclusive view of when Kaepernick fumbled for the second time.

This call was one where either ruling was defensible, because in the end there is no visual evidence of what happened at the key moment.

Play: Unnecessary roughness on Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith
Referee: Gene Steratore
Analysis: Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III attempted to gain a first down by running around right end on what appeared to be a read-option play. Seeing Smith approaching him from the front, and defensive end Corey Wootton from the side, Griffin began sliding 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage near the right sideline.

Smith lowered his right shoulder to initiate contact, and Steratore penalized him for "a blow to a sliding quarterback's head," according to the post-play announcement.

There are several factors to unpack here; most obviously, a second look at the play revealed Smith at worst grazed Griffin's left shoulder. He did not appear to contact his head or neck. Steratore made a mistake of anticipation, one that isn't entirely surprising when you note that his crew entered Week 9 having called 17 unnecessary roughness or personal foul penalties, by far the highest among the NFL's 17 crews, according to ESPN Stats & Information's penalty database. (The average was 6.7 per crew.)

But what interests me are two other questions: Was Griffin still considered a quarterback by rule at the end of the play? And what, if any, protection did the slide afford him?

First, the NFL confirmed last season that a quarterback running the read-option loses his "quarterback protection" and can be hit as if he were a running back. So it is difficult to understand why Steratore referred to a "sliding quarterback" when the league doesn't consider him one on that play.

Second, what you might not realize is that Griffin is still classified as a defenseless player -- whether or not he is a quarterback -- who had declared himself down and prompted an immediate dead ball.

"A player on the ground" is one of 10 definitions of a defenseless player, as listed in Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7(a). And any player, not just a receiver, can declare himself down by sliding feet first. According to Rule 7, Section 2, Article 1(d), "the ball is dead the instant he touches the ground with anything other than his hands or feet." The rule requires the player to start his slide "before contact by a defensive player is imminent," requiring officials to judge whether the defender had a reasonable chance to pull up.

Regardless, in this case the discussion is moot because Smith appeared to sail over Griffin with little to no contact. But had there been contact, to the helmet or anywhere else, Steratore's crew would have been justified in calling the penalty even though Griffin was by rule a runner and not a quarterback at the end of the play.

Play: Rams' Tavon Austin is ruled down in the field of play rather than in the end zone
Referee: Boger
Analysis: In addition to the Kaepernick fumble, Boger's ruling on a complicated play before halftime merits further inspection. Should the 49ers have been credited for a safety after Austin's poor return of a missed field goal attempt?

Austin had advanced the ball out of the end zone, just short of the 2-yard line, before making a hard cut to the right to avoid the 49ers' Derek Carrier. In an unsuccessful attempt to get around Carrier, Austin began moving back toward his goal line. Carrier's tackle brought him down in the end zone. Boger had to decide whether to call a safety or if Austin would be credited with forward progress at the 1- or 2-yard line. Boger chose the latter, a ruling upheld after an inconclusive replay review.

The NFL rule book defines forward progress as "the point at which [a runner's] advance toward his opponent's goal ends and is the spot at which the ball is declared dead by rule, irrespective of the runner or receiver being pushed or carried backward by an opponent."

Did Carrier push or carry Austin into the end zone? Or did Austin get there himself?

The key bit of information, as former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira said on the Fox broadcast, was the location of the ball when Carrier first contacted Austin and thus stopped the advance. That is the spot of forward progress; if the ball had already broken back over the goal-line plane, it should be a safety.

In the end, Fox did not supply a replay that provided a direct goal-line angle to determine where the ball was on contact. Because Austin had the ball in his left arm as he turned right, meaning the ball was away from the end zone at the line of forward progress, my guess is that it had not broken the plane when Carrier first grabbed Austin's right knee.

Boger had no choice but to uphold the replay, but it was a reminder of how tricky a forward progress ruling can be.

Play: Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is ruled to be down before releasing a pass, resulting in a sack
Referee: Bill Vinovich
Analysis: In the third quarter Sunday night at Heinz Field, Flacco scrambled away from Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison and threw an incomplete pass while falling to the ground. The Steelers challenged the ruling, claiming Flacco was down before he threw the ball, and replay official Dale Hamer agreed. The call was changed to a sack.

This play highlighted common confusion about the definition of "down by contact." In this case, both of Flacco's knees and elbows were off the ground when he threw -- and Hamer was still correct when he made his ruling.

Why? According to Rule 7, Section 2, Article 1(a) of the rule book, an official should declare the ball dead and the down ended when "a runner is contacted by an opponent and touches the ground with any part of his body other than his hands or feet." The definition is further explained as "any part of a runner's leg above the ankle or any part of his arm above the wrist."

While it's more common for a joint -- elbows and knees -- to touch the ground first, a shin or forearm is considered the same. So, to paraphrase John Madden, one knee equals one shin and one elbow equals one forearm.

Inside Slant: NFL Week 1 QB Report

September, 9, 2014
Sometimes the numbers speak for themselves. Most times, however, we need a deeper dive -- mixed with a bit of common sense -- to understand how an NFL quarterback performed in a given week.

The full answer can be elusive, but as in past years, we'll endeavor to get as close as possible in the weekly Quarterback Report. The vast trove of data produced by ESPN Stats & Information, much of which is used to calculate Total Quarterback Rating (QBR), will guide us. (Special thanks to analyst Jacob Nitzberg for his help in sifting through and translating the data for me.)

This season's edition will provide detailed analysis of five (or so) quarterbacks from Week 1 action. Feedback and suggestions are encouraged, either via the comments below or through my mailbag.

Quarterback: Jay Cutler
What you saw: Thirty-four completions in 49 attempts for 349 yards, 2 touchdowns, 2 interceptions.
What you might have missed: All but one of Cutler's passes against the Buffalo Bills came from inside the pocket, a notable departure when you consider how good he's been when on the run in his career. Last season, his 84.7 QBR outside the pocket for the Chicago Bears ranked second in the NFL.

As it turned out, Cutler's one foray outside the pocket Sunday led to a crushing interception by defensive tackle Kyle Williams, a play that dropped the Bears' win probability from 64.3 to 43.9.

A hamstring injury limited deep receiver Alshon Jeffery to 36 snaps, and the impact on Cutler was clear. Of his 49 attempts, 33 traveled 10 yards or fewer downfield. He completed only 1 of 8 passes of at least 15 yards downfield, including none of five after halftime, and he threw his average pass 2.43 seconds after the snap. (Last season: 2.63 seconds.)

Finally, Cutler completed 41.7 percent of passes thrown to players other than Jeffery, Brandon Marshall, tight end Martellus Bennett and running back Matt Forte.

Final analysis: Cutler looked an awful lot like a West Coast system quarterback. Historically, he's been at his best when moving outside the pocket and creating chances for his downfield guys to break open.

Quarterback: Tom Brady
What you saw: He was 29-for-56 for 249 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs.
What you missed: A struggle against the Miami Dolphins' standard pass rush, especially in a four-sack, two-fumble second half.

For the game, when the Dolphins sent four or fewer pass-rushers, Brady's QBR was its lowest (18.4) since 2010. He completed only 50 percent of his passes (20 of 40) and took three of his four sacks in those situations. Overall, Brady was under pressure on 16 dropbacks, his second-most in a game for the New England Patriots since ESPN Stats & Information began tracking it in 2006. His performance when under pressure in the second half: 0-for-6 with four sacks.

Not surprisingly, Brady didn't have much time to get off an accurate deep throw. He missed on 16 of 18 passes that traveled at least 15 yards downfield, over- or underthrowing 61 percent (11 of 18) of them. For context, in 2013 Brady missed on 41 percent of his deep passes.

Brady's performance on third down was equally weak, with three completions in 11 attempts, including none in four attempts to tight end Rob Gronkowski. Overall, eight of Brady's 12 throws to Gronkowski fell incomplete.

Final analysis: The best quarterbacks are expected to excel regardless of pass rush, but the Patriots' pass protection didn't do Brady many favors. When you're under pressure more often than you have been in years, and it's typically via a standard rush, those around the quarterback deserve significant blame.

Quarterback: Robert Griffin III
What you saw: He was 29-for-37 for 267 yards, 0 TDs, 0 interceptions
What you might have missed: One of the most conservative games of Griffin's career with the Washington Redskins. Documenting his approach leads to some staggering numbers.

Griffin's average pass against the Houston Texans traveled 5.89 yards in the air, the third-lowest total of his career. Of his 37 attempts, 25 traveled 5 yards or fewer downfield. About 60 percent of his yardage total (160 of 267) came after the catch, and while he completed all eight of his passes targeted at receiver DeSean Jackson, six of them traveled 5 yards or fewer downfield. Of Jackson's 62 yards, 43 were after the catch.

That 267-yard total is worth further inspection. Nearly three-quarters of it (193 of 267) came in the second half, which began with the Redskins having a win probability of 17 percent and never rose above 31.6 percent. In other words, it came when the Texans were more willing to allow yards in exchange for time off the clock.

Final analysis: Robert Griffin III the pocket passer makes one yearn for Robert Griffin III the wild runner. Checking down all game only works if your team has a lockdown defense. The Redskins don't. They need more explosive plays from their quarterback, one way or the other.

Quarterback: Geno Smith
What you saw: He was 23-for-28 for 221 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT.
What you might have missed: A completion percentage aided by an excess of short passes, and a QBR (32.3) lowered by two significant turnovers.

More than half (12) of Smith's completions were caught either at or behind the line of scrimmage, including seven screen plays. Smith also completed 10 of 12 play-action attempts. His longest completion traveled 17 yards in the air. Meanwhile, his interception dropped the New York Jets' win probability by 11.5 points, and his fumble inside the Oakland Raiders' 5-yard line dropped it by 15.4 points.

He completed all five of his passes on third down, but only two were converted to first downs. He also took both of his sacks on third down.

One significant, positive development: Smith completed 8 of 9 passes against the Raiders' blitz after finishing 2013 as the NFL's second-lowest ranked quarterback against the blitz.

Final analysis: The Jets' use of Smith suggests he hasn't fully earned their trust. It worked at home against the Raiders, and in general is a good formula for a young quarterback in development, but it will require top-end play from the Jets' defense to support victories against teams with higher-scoring offenses.

Quarterback: Jake Locker
What you saw: He was 22-for-33 for 266 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INT
What you might have missed: A notable adjustment in the way Locker was used by the Tennessee Titans' new coaching staff.

Locker didn't attempt a single pass from outside the pocket, something that never happened in 2013 and in general has been a rarity during his injury-riddled career. He acquitted himself well when asked to be a pure pocket passer, completing 7 of 11 passes on third down, converting six into first downs. His only miss? A third-and-19 in the first quarter. Overall, he converted a career-high 18 passing first downs.

Fantasy players and traditional fans alike would be interested to note that of Locker's seven passes to receiver Kendall Wright, five traveled 5 or fewer yards downfield. Receiver Justin Hunter, meanwhile, was targeted on five passes that traveled at least 15 yards downfield.

Final analysis: We know Locker has the ability to scramble, but we also know he has had a tendency to get hurt. New coach Ken Whisenhunt's offense is safer for him if he can excel within its parameters. So far, so good.

Seven NFL predictions for 2014

September, 4, 2014
Golden Tate Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesThe Packers and Seahawks open the NFL season in their first meeting since 2012's "Fail Mary."

Of course. Two of the NFL's best teams will kick off the 2014 season Thursday night -- and all you want to talk about is some random play that happened two years ago in a dark period of NFL history.

Fail Mary? Thpptttt. You still don't think Golden Tate caught the ball? You're waiting for Roger Goodell to invoke his right to reverse outcomes? You're incredulous the NFL would open itself to outside influence by substituting woefully underqualified officials as leverage in collective bargaining? You're still following T.J. Lang after he posted the most re-tweeted tweet of all time?

Nope? Me neither. Over it.

I, for one, am far too focused on the crucial nuts and bolts of this game -- and the upcoming season -- to get worked up about the most recent time the Green Bay Packers visited the Seattle Seahawks. This is all business. I want to see if quarterback Aaron Rodgers can withstand the Seahawks' fierce pass rush and if his girlfriend, Oliva Munn, is in the stands to watch it. I'm pumped to break down how Richard Sherman matches up with Jordy Nelson -- in between viewings of his latest Campbell's Soup ad.

Nothing generates deep discussion of strategy, scheme and precision like the NFL. How will the Cleveland Browns find a deep threat after the suspension of Josh Gordon? (And what club will Johnny Manziel hit after their first game?) Will Robert Griffin III respond to new expectations as a pocket passer? (And who will be the next world leader to speak out against the Washington Redskins' team name?) How in the name of doomsday will the Dallas Cowboys field a competitive defense? (And can owner Jerry Jones find a way to market a practice squad player?)

So many questions, so little time in the film room. So for your collective preparation efforts, here is a touchdown's worth of predictions for the 2014 NFL season. Carve them in stone, bet the house on them, and if I'm wrong, feel free to call me at (555) 555-5555.

1. Officiating will be better

[+] EnlargeNFL Instant Replay
AP Photo/Jack DempseyOfficials will now get instant replay assistance from the league office.
Yes, I know. We spent the entire preseason freaking out about a spike of penalties for illegal contact and defensive holding, two key points of emphasis dictated by the NFL's competition committee. I'm well aware that officials called almost the same number of those penalties in 69 preseason games (271) as they did in 256 regular-season games (285) in 2013.

But it's also worth taking a breath and reiterating that the rate dropped sharply in the final week of the preseason as all sides adjusted. The rate will still be higher than in 2013, but I wouldn't expect anything close to what we saw in the first few weeks of the preseason.

Aside from that issue, the league took several important steps this offseason in response to a rough go of it in 2013. It replaced three referees and a total of 13 officials, the biggest turnover in more than a decade. New instant replay assistance from the league office will make the system more accurate and quicker -- by nearly 20 seconds per review, according to vice president of officiating Dean Blandino -- and officials will communicate better now via wireless headsets.

I still expect to see plenty of disputed calls, and I'm not sure how to quantify improvement. But there is no doubt this operation is moving in the right direction.

2. Russell Wilson will be elite . . .

By the time the season is over, the Seahawks' quarterback will no longer be the target of condescending compliments. He won't be known as a winner, a game manager or surprisingly strong-armed for his size. No, Wilson will be one regarded as one of the absolute best quarterbacks -- and passers -- in the NFL. Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees will have no choice but to let him into their club.

This preseason, Wilson looked like a Ph.D. student who has submitted his dissertation. Preseason results are to be taken lightly -- sorry, just expunging the final drops of condescension -- but Wilson was the best player on the field this summer. He accounted for six touchdowns in three games while completing 31 of 37 passes for 400 yards. Wilson looked for all the world like a player on the brink of an individual breakout, one that will force the Seahawks to place him among the league's highest-paid players when he's eligible for a contract extension this spring.

3. . . . and Johnny Manziel, uh, won't

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonJohnny Manziel seems destined to be more like Troy Smith than Russell Wilson.
Manziel (6-foot) has drawn plenty of comparisons to Wilson (5-11) because of their height, but the associations should end there. This summer, Manziel revealed a big-play attitude but offered no confirmation that he has the physical attributes to carry it out.

There's reason to believe Manziel's inaccurate passing (47.9 percent in the preseason) can improve over time. But what made him a special college player was his ability to break the pocket and pressure defenses on the edge. Those expecting him to play that way in the NFL saw good instincts but not the kind of speed that suggests he can make a living doing it. Instead, we were reminded that Manziel (4.68 seconds in the 40-yard dash) isn't nearly as fleet as players who have pressured defenses with speed in recent years. Griffin (4.41), Wilson (4.55) and Colin Kaepernick (4.53) were all considerably faster when drafted.

Manziel will get on the field, but he'll conjure more images of Troy Smith than Russell Wilson this season.

4. Texans will regret QB approach

The Houston Texans made the right call in bypassing Manziel at No. 1 overall, despite the pleading of some fans. But they'll rue both the day they allowed the Minnesota Vikings to leapfrog them for Teddy Bridgewater at No. 32 overall and the day after, when they passed up Derek Carr at No. 33.

There is no more important job for a new coach than to identify his quarterback, and Bill O'Brien almost certainly won't do that in his first season. Evidence of concern surfaced last week, when the Texans acquired the mildly touted Ryan Mallett to join a mix of journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick and could-miss prospect Tom Savage. In all likelihood, the Texans have pushed this critical question into O'Brien's second year. Texans fans should prepare to hear a ton about Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston and Brett Hundley, the quarterback trio that should lead the 2015 draft.

5. A big-time coach is in his final season

I'm just not sure who yet. Will it be Tom Coughlin, the 68-year-old New York Giants coach whose team might need a rebuild? Coughlin has won two Super Bowls, but he has also missed the playoffs four of the past five seasons. Would the Giants move on if that streak becomes five of the past six?

What about Marvin Lewis? In resurrecting the Cincinnati Bengals, Lewis has made the playoffs five times but now holds the NFL record for coaching the most games (176) without a postseason victory. The Bengals will have their hands full in a tougher AFC North, and Lewis will be coaching without two treasured coordinators, Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer. Is this the year Lewis must win a playoff game to keep his job?

[+] EnlargeJim Harbaugh
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezWill Jim Harbaugh's supernova personality explode in San Francisco?
Then there's Jim Harbaugh, whose contract negotiations with the 49ers have been put on hold until after the season. Plenty of smoke arose this offseason about internal discord and even a potential trade to the Browns. Some consider Harbaugh's personality to be a supernova -- burning brightly for a short time before it explodes.

Jeff Fisher might be facing the biggest challenge in St. Louis. After consecutive seven-win seasons in the game's toughest division, Fisher has again lost his starting quarterback for the year. Has he built his defense into a strong enough group to carry the Rams into the playoffs? Otherwise, he's headed toward his fifth consecutive non-playoff season. The most recent time a Jeff Fisher team won a postseason game? The 2003 Tennessee Titans.

6. Marc Trestman's reputation as a "quarterback whisperer" will swell . . .

. . . when Josh McCown goes back to being Josh McCown, when Jay Cutler continues his refinement and when Jimmy Clausen (!) survives as the Chicago Bears' backup.

McCown had an undeniably great season in 2013. He finished with the NFL's top Total Quarterback Rating (85.1) and threw 13 touchdowns with just one interception. That performance got him a starting job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but the Trestman blip in McCown's career is too obvious to ignore.

Before teaming up with Trestman, McCown was a 58 percent passer with a 13-20 career record as a starter and seven more interceptions (44) than touchdowns (37). What's more likely: that he suddenly figured it all out in his 11th season, or that Trestman found a special connection?

McCown's performance overshadowed what turned out to be the best season of Cutler's career (66.4 QBR, 89.2 rating). With a settled offensive line and the Brandon Marshall/Alshon Jeffery receiving duo, Cutler has every opportunity to continue blossoming under Trestman. And if Clausen -- who was out of football in 2013 -- proves anywhere close to a credible backup, as the Bears are counting on, then it'll be time to recognize Trestman as the NFL's top quarterback guru.

7. This will be the last season of the extra point as we know it

Enjoy it while you can. League officials were pleased with an experiment that called for 33-yard extra points in the first two weeks of the preseason. It resulted in eight misses, albeit in some cases by place-kickers who won't be in the league in 2014. At this point, however, the NFL wants something other than a sure thing moving forward -- and the past season's 99.8 conversion rate was pretty darn close.

One alternative to keep an eye on: Some coaches and players want to see the spot moved from the 2- to the 1-yard line. That shift, as the theory goes, would encourage more teams to go for two points -- a decidedly more exciting play than an extra point from any distance. In either event, start getting your autographed prints now. The closeout sale has started.

Redskins learn from RG III injury

July, 29, 2014
It was the slogan. It was the documentary. It was a coach who figured they could ease him back in. It was a doctor calling him superhuman. It also was a group that overlooked the obvious: When it comes to playing quarterback in the NFL, especially for a young guy, there’s no substitute for repetitions. That’s where Bruce Allen, in essence, said the Washington Redskins organization erred last summer when it came to Robert Griffin III.

Allen told ESPN 950 radio Monday that having Griffin play after only a couple of weeks of practice was “disrespectful to football.”

That's easy to say now. Although his return was heavily debated, it wasn’t as if many in the organization were saying behind the scenes that Griffin should wait a few more weeks.

His knee was ready and cleared by Dr. James Andrews. His game? Another matter. Griffin did not look sharp in the throwing sessions the media could watch. But at the time, you figured it was natural rust and would be shed soon. Griffin, after all, was an athlete on a different level.

Ah, but playing quarterback is about more. It’s safe to say Griffin could have used a few more weeks of nurturing his game before returning. The problem at the time was this: The Redskins were entering the regular season, and he didn’t have time to continue rebuilding his game. Coaches often say young quarterbacks grow more in the offseason between their first and second seasons. Griffin didn’t have that. It took him a while to gain any sort of consistency and rhythm. A big play or game would be followed by erratic play; it never really changed.

There’s no doubt coach Mike Shanahan felt as if he had no choice but to insert Griffin. Allen never mentioned him, but Shanahan had the ultimate authority. There was so much hype surrounding Griffin's desire to return, which left the coach wondering how it would be perceived if he didn’t start him. Shanahan had the utmost confidence in Kirk Cousins -- but Cousins sprained his foot and missed two weeks, not returning until right before the opener.

Shanahan could have made a decision, just as he could have made one in the 2012 playoff loss and not used Griffin. A coach with two Super Bowl rings has that authority. Shanahan failed to make the decision; no one from the organization publicly disagreed with the move, either.

It’s funny, though, because life is different for Griffin with Jay Gruden. It’s almost as if the Redskins are trying the George Costanza approach: Whatever was done in the past, do the opposite. Gruden is more player-friendly and certainly more compatible with Griffin. They are trying to decrease the importance of his legs (the Shanahans incorporated them in part to ease the transition to the NFL), at least on designed runs; when he has run in camp, it’s been off scrambles. If any situations arise with Griffin when it comes to injuries, my guess is they will take a different approach there, too.

Gruden knows what went wrong here in the past. But it wasn’t just one or two people who learned a lesson when it came to handling Griffin’s injury. It was an organization. More than one person shared in this responsibility. If they learned from it, Griffin and the team can move forward with confidence.
Examining the Washington Redskins' roster:

Quarterbacks (3)

Jay Gruden only had two quarterbacks in each of his three seasons with Cincinnati, but Griffin still needs to prove his durability. If something happened to him, they woulld still be in good shape with Cousins and McCoy. If they go with two then McCoy gets left off.

Running backs (4)

The Redskins could also stash Chris Thompson on the practice squad as further insurance. Thompson can easily bump himself onto the roster with a good summer; he’s a good fit in Gruden’s offense and the new coach liked Thompson coming out of college. But durability is an issue. By keeping four here, the Redskins can go with an extra player at another spot. This means Evan Royster is on the outs, but he doesn’t give the Redskins anything they don’t have in better players. He is insurance only.

Receivers (6)

I am not cutting Leonard Hankerson, rather I’m just not sold that he will be on the active roster at the start of the season. If he shows this summer that he can play, then, yes, I would have him on the 53-man roster. But the Redskins were not sure what to expect from him and when he might be healthy. Therefore, I can see him taking a little longer to return. Gruden likes Moss and they drafted Grant. Robinson needs to take a step.

Tight ends (3)

Rookie tight end Ted Bolser would head to the practice squad, where he can develop. He didn’t look close to a roster spot just based on how he looked this spring. Reed is firmly entrenched as the starter with Paulsen their top blocker and Paul a special teams ace.

Offensive line (10)

In reality, I could see them keeping only nine offensive linemen. It all depends on how Long and/or LeRibeus looks at guard. They love Long -- Gruden has said he could compete immediately -- so if he shows he can play, then they could cut Chester. Compton is a little surprise, but they like him as well. This position will be fluid and I’m not sold on the 10 I have listed.

Defensive line (6)

This one is fluid as well because it depends in part on Bowen’s health. I like Chris Neild and so do they, but can they keep him? Golston is more versatile and a key player on special teams, but he’s also 30 and they must get younger.

Linebackers (9)

As of now I’d have Rob Jackson out, especially if Jenkins develops as a pass-rusher. But this will be a close race. And I have them keeping an extra guy inside in Hayward because of his special teams ability.

Cornerbacks (5)
Chase Minnifield remains eligible for the practice squad. Richard Crawford is coming off a knee injury and it’s hard to place him on here without seeing him play. The one benefit for Crawford is that he can play in the slot; they need depth at that spot.

Safeties (4)

I really don’t feel good about this position and am not confident that I have this one right, at least for that final spot. Robinson’s special teams ability gives him the edge over Bacarri Rambo, who must have a strong camp. Akeem Davis can help on special teams, but with no NFL experience he will be stashed on the practice squad.

Specialists (3)

The Forbath selection is based on never having seen rookie Zach Hocker kick in an NFL game. If Hocker is consistent this summer and shows a strong leg, then he can win the job.

Camp preview: Washington Redskins

July, 17, 2014
» NFC Preview: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

NFL Nation's John Keim examines the three biggest issues facing the Washington Redskins heading into training camp.

A rookie coach: Jay Gruden showed during the spring that he’ll coach with energy, creating a different vibe at Redskins Park. He’ll catch passes, defend receivers, throw a pass or two. And he looked for coaches who bring a similar energy. The difference was noticeable throughout the spring workouts open to the media.

Gruden, too, is a players’ coach, which can be viewed as positive or negative (all related to wins and losses).

Thus far, his relationship with quarterback Robert Griffin III has been all positive. If that continues, it’s a major boost to the organization after the toxicity of last season, regardless of who was at fault. It helps that Gruden is able to keep his ego in check; you don’t get the sense that there are any ulterior motives with him.

Having said all that, we have no idea how Gruden will handle a season in charge. What if there’s an issue with Griffin? What if the defense doesn’t produce and he thinks the Skins need to tweak their scheme? Will Gruden be able to make those hard decisions when necessary? In-game and in-season adjustments matter greatly, and Gruden has to prove himself in this area. He was not a unanimous hotshot choice to be a head coach, but the Redskins believed in him and thought he could handle the job. But now a first-time head coach has to do what established coaches such as Joe Gibbs and Mike Shanahan failed to do: lead a consistent winner. And he has to do that with general manager Bruce Allen, who has all the football power for the first time in his career.

Robert Griffin III’s rise: Griffin was viewed as a savior in 2012, setting records as a rookie and helping the Redskins win the NFC East title for the first time since 1999. His future, and that of the organization, looked tremendous -- even though when they were 3-6 it appeared they had the right quarterback, but not the right team.

Then came last season. And harsh judgment on Griffin and his future. Even as a rookie there was skepticism about whether Griffin’s career could last given all the running he did (sometimes by design, other times by necessity and other times because of poor decision-making). But last season, his mechanical flaws were critiqued more harshly, and his ability to develop as a pocket passer was questioned. Meanwhile, anonymous-sourced stories abounded about his ability to lead the right way and develop as a passer.

Griffin went from a beloved figure two years ago to one who now engenders sharp opinions one way or another. Now his personality is even questioned. Griffin can regain the love, but he’ll have to turn a strong offseason into an even better regular season. His road to redemption is not a long one, but he just has to get it done. Considering this is the first real NFL offseason he’s had, it’s not a big leap to think he’ll play better than in ’13 – even in a new offense. The Redskins’ ability to give him quicker reads with receivers more capable of winning at the line will help.

Where's the D? Washington improved its pass rush by adding a coach devoted to it (Brian Baker), signing a free agent (Jason Hatcher) and drafting another outside linebacker (Trent Murphy). That, combined with holdovers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan, should give the rush a boost. Corner David Amerson gives the Redskins a young player, whom they love, to build around in the secondary.

But will that be enough to improve the defense? There are plenty of other question marks on a defense that remains in transition. Washington might have as many as five starters age 30 or older; this is not a once-great defense hanging on, it’s a once-struggling defense trying to get better. The D will receive a boost from the above additions, but still needs more.

The Redskins have to prove they are not a boom-or-bust defense. They tackled poorly in the back end last year, one reason they ranked 32nd in yards per pass attempt at 7.58. They have a new starting inside linebacker, Keenan Robinson; since being drafted in 2012, he has 11 career tackles, two torn pectoral muscles and zero starts. Safety Ryan Clark has been a solid player and is a terrific leader, but he needs to show he can still play at age 34. If a defense needs to be strong up the middle to win, the Redskins have this: a solid nose tackle in Barry Cofield, question marks at inside linebacker, and question marks at safety. While Griffin’s play garners the headlines, the defense holds a major key to success.
The Washington Redskins' passing game struggled last season and not just because the starting quarterback was coming off knee surgery. The protection failed; the receivers didn’t get open; the coaches could not add as much to the offense as desired.

But with a new staff, a quarterback more like himself and with a full offseason and better receivers, the Redskins’ passing attack should improve. Of course, there have been many times in the past that an aspect of the Redskins should have improved and did not. Quarterback Robert Griffin III has maintained all along that nothing has yet been accomplished. He is absolutely right.

One veteran offensive player said what helps is that Jay Gruden’s passing game is similar to what Washington ran under Kyle Shanahan. It also helps that the coaches say the run game will be the same. Still, it’s a new offense that Griffin and the others must learn.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
AP Photo/Richard LipskiLook for Robert Griffin III and the Redskins to be more effective throwing deep with improved receivers led by offseason addition DeSean Jackson.
I know that Gruden’s favored alignment on first-and-10 was two tight ends and two receivers last season in Cincinnati. I don’t know how often he will use what alignment, but the Redskins did invest in the passing game -- DeSean Jackson, Andre Roberts to pair with Pierre Garcon, all of whom can win downfield -- and you don’t do so without the intent to maximize that talent.

The Redskins have devoted 15.57 percent of their cap space to receiver -- that’s 36.05 percent more than the average NFL team.

Also, the feeling, for now at least, is that the Redskins will rely less on play-action passes than they did in the past. The Redskins averaged an NFL-best 11.85 yards per pass attempt from play-action in 2012; they averaged 6.97 yards per attempt last season, 26th in the NFL. By comparison, Cincinnati ranked 12th last season at 8.22 yards per pass attempt from play-action (all statistics courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information).

However, the Bengals definitely ran it less: they ranked 19th in the NFL with only 47.6 yards per game out of play-action looks. The Redskins, meanwhile, were ninth at 70.3 yards per game.

The sense is that the Redskins won’t need to use it as much because of an improved receiving corps, one that is much more capable of winning one-on-one battles at the line (unlike last season). Therefore, in theory, it should result in quicker opportunities for Griffin. That will allow the Redskins to use less complicated reads until Griffin and the receivers grow in the offense. Without the benefit of a regular offseason a year ago, the Redskins could not expand the offense under Griffin the way they would have liked. When they tried to, it did not work for a variety of reasons.

Griffin has had a good offseason and, the veteran said, has done a good job of picking up the offense. But the fact remains that this is his first legitimate NFL offseason and he’s learning a second offense. Don’t complicate matters (even if every NFL offense is complex). This should allow him to be more decisive and play to his strengths, which should include throwing the deep ball.

A lot of this depends on how well the protection holds up. If it doesn't, then play-action can be used more often.

Gruden inherited different talent offensively than he had in Cincinnati. The Bengals did not have a workhorse runner as good as Alfred Morris. They did not have the depth among the receiving talent Washington now appears to have (including tight end Jordan Reed). Of course, the Bengals did have other weapons: receiver A.J. Green, one of the game’s best; running back Giovani Bernard, good at running from the spread and catching passes out of the backfield.

Griffin is a different threat than Andy Dalton. Griffin, obviously, is more mobile but he also has a stronger arm and should be more dangerous throwing downfield. But keep in mind that Cincinnati led the NFL with 83 pass attempts on passes that traveled at least 20 yards or more (the Redskins had 60 such attempts) but were 16th in completion percentage (37.3 percent) and 13th in yards per attempt (12.83). Again, if Griffin is sharper, then it would help here: The Redskins ranked second in the NFL in yards per pass attempt on these plays in 2012 (though they were 31st in number of passes attempted). Last season, the Redskins ranked 26th in completion percentage (28.3) and 25th in yards per attempt (9.92). With Jackson, a healthy Reed and an improved Griffin, I would expect both numbers to improve by a decent amount.

Also, what we have learned thus far about Gruden is that he will adjust. Well, actually, all we know is that he says he will adapt. That is why he is leaving the same run game in place, knowing it has been effective. Though some aspects of his offense have to remain the same -- you need core beliefs -- he can’t, and shouldn’t, ask Griffin to be Dalton.

The Redskins need Griffin to be Griffin again. They have the receivers to help him get there; they definitely need the line to help as well. Otherwise, a lot of what the Redskins hope to do -- and want to do -- will have to change.

Redskins' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
Midway through the 2012 season, the narrative surrounding the Redskins’ future had changed. They went from a team headed nowhere to one guided by an exciting young quarterback, capable of big-time wins.

A year later that narrative changed, with Robert Griffin III's future -- and that of the Redskins -- more in question. One knee injury altered that storyline.

As the Redskins look to the future, it’s clear that one person holds the key to their success over the next three years: Griffin. They could still succeed if Griffin fails, but that would require them to solve a position they haven’t been able to for a long, long time. (They’ve had two Pro Bowl quarterbacks since 1998: Brad Johnson in ’99 and Griffin in ’12.) Maybe backup quarterback Kirk Cousins could be that guy, but that’s far from certain.

Of course, the defense must play better. And the defense is hardly built for long-term success at this point, unlike an offense that features a young nucleus. The defense is aging and needs more good young players.

The head coach, Jay Gruden, needs to prove he can handle his new gig. The general manager, Bruce Allen, must show he can build a winner -- he’s fully in charge now for the first time in his career. The pressure is on both men, but Griffin’s play on the field trumps all because of the importance of the position. If he plays well, it’s easier for Gruden to coach and for Allen to build. If Griffin stumbles or gets hurt, everyone in charge has a much tougher task. Griffin's play can get guys paid -- or fired. That's power.

The Redskins also tied their future to Griffin the minute they sent a large haul to St. Louis in exchange for the No. 2 pick: three first-round picks and a second. That preceded news about the two-year salary-cap penalty that restricted their ability to fortify the roster. Add it up and Griffin’s success became even more important. They need him to deliver.

If Griffin improves and stays healthy, the Redskins have a dynamic young quarterback capable of delivering big plays and, perhaps, titles for years to come. Doing the latter takes more than one player, but Griffin’s performance in 2012 gave Washington something it had not had in a long time: hope. That hope still exists, though it now comes with fingers crossed. But nobody else can deliver what Washington needs more than Griffin.
This and that from coverage surrounding the Washington Redskins:

Kerrigan wants more: The fact that Ryan Kerrigan wants to stay with the Redskins long-term isn't exactly a big surprise. Even if he wanted to leave, Kerrigan is now signed through 2015 so there's no way he'd say so at this point. But what stood out a little more is when he told the Muncie (Ind.) Star Press that, "I'm tired of being consistent. I want to be consistently really, really good. I don't want to be just consistently average anymore. I want to be consistently good." Again, Kerrigan should say something like that. But it's a good, and proper, mindset. If Kerrigan wants to get big money in a couple of years he'll have to do more than he's done his first three seasons. Thing is, I believe Kerrigan when he talks this way. Again, having a coach devoted to teaching the outside linebackers rush techniques -- and getting away from guys who mostly focused on assignments -- will help.

Morgan agrees to service: Former Redskins receiver Josh Morgan agreed to do 32 hours of community service in order to have an assault charge dropped. Morgan was accused of punching a valet in the mouth for "looking in the direction" of a woman with the new Chicago receiver. Morgan said he didn't hit the man, though. Kind of a wild divergence of stories if that's the case. It's an unfortunate turn for Morgan, though the community service aspect is good for him. It's something he already does -- more so than anyone else in Washington the past two seasons. He also showed that he wasn't much help at receiver.

RG III ranking: My former partner and mentor Rick Snider didn't like ESPN's ranking of quarterback Robert Griffin III. A poll of executives and coaches (most current, some former) showed Griffin as the 19th-ranked quarterback in the NFL, in the third tier and tied with Cincinnati's Andy Dalton. I wrote about this last week, but Snider scoffed at this notion. You can't dismiss how people around the league perceive Griffin -- and this includes players, too. There are definite skeptics. And while Griffin has had a lot go right this offseason, and has worked hard, it's not as if he tore it up in spring workouts (he's still a young QB learning the game) so all that outsiders have to go on is: whatever they saw on tape and whatever they hear/read about him. I get the concerns over him, but so much is based on a subpar season in which a guy who desperately needed an offseason didn't have one. A year ago, before the injury (and perhaps even after), Griffin would have been a lot higher on the list. But he struggled as a pocket passer, was knocked by "anonymous" sources and his reputation took a big hit. If he has a big year, that ranking will shoot up. In other words: He can still change things. In a hurry. It would be interesting to talk to the same people a year from now to see how much opinions can change in one year and what the narrative is surrounding Griffin.

No more headdress: Amanda Blackhorse, who was part of the group that challenged the organization's nickname with the Patent and Trademark Office, said they targeted the Redskins first because they considered the nickname more offensive than, say the Chiefs or Indians. But those teams aren't off the hook, nor are their fans. While a small minority of Redskins fans -- or those of other teams for that matter -- dress in Indian garb, Blackhorse told the Grand Canyon News that no one should. "You can love Native Americans and not have anything against them, but yet your fans will do very bizarre rituals in these games that are very stereotypical of Native American people," Blackhorse said. "The headdress, the war paint, that's what I have a problem with," she said. "No matter how well ... you try to stage this sort of thing, you're always going to have that outcome."
Some Redskins items from recent days that you might have missed:

More work: Quarterback Robert Griffin III will work with quarterbacks coach Terry Shea next week. Griffin worked with Shea earlier this offseason for a week, but wanted another tune-up before training camp begins July 24. Shea focused hard on Griffin’s fundamentals, including narrowing his base, getting his feet to turn with his body in the pocket and raising where Griffin held the ball -- at times last year he held it too low, leading to a wind-up throw. Griffin clearly has worked hard this offseason. I'm curious to see how that pays off this summer and during the season. He’s also said to have his explosion back, as has been discussed for a while – as multiple people have talked about seeing a difference in that area. But the real key for him is developing in the pocket. Griffin needs to succeed without that extraordinary explosion, though it certainly does help when defenses fear your legs.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty ImagesWashington hopes the offseason work Robert Griffin III has put in will pay off in the fall.
Skepticism over RG III ranking: Last week Mike Sando wrote a terrific piece, ranking quarterbacks based on a poll of executives and coaches and evaluators . Griffin did not fare well, being placed as a tier 3 quarterback tied with Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton. The rankings prompted Kevin Seifert to question why Griffin had fallen so far after just one bad season; he also asked if they had forgotten a record-setting 2012 season. People fall in and out of love quickly in the NFL and I think Griffin is the latest example. Watch how fast opinions change if he gets off to a good start.

Vinny on Snyder's fight: Former Redskins executive Vinny Cerrato knows Dan Snyder well, which is why he doesn’t think he’ll abandon his fight to keep the nickname. Snyder is not going to suddenly think the other side has a point, not when he views the matter much, much differently. Besides, what has been evident over the years is that he’s ultra-competitive and does not want to lose this one. Cerrato’s point is one that others have mentioned, too: The only way Snyder might relinquish the battle is if (and he stressed if) he somehow gets a new stadium out of it in a decade or so.

Family torn on name: The Wetzel family is a pivotal one in the Redskins’ battle over the nickname as Walter Wetzel is the one who designed the current logo used on the helmet since 1972. Wetzel’s son, Donald, tells The Washington Post – and has told other outlets in the past – that he’s proud of the name and the logo. But his nephew told the Post that he definitely is on the other side with his thoughts. Guessing this is a microcosm of the debate played out among Native Americans.

Redemption: A lot of Redskins have talked about getting the “bad taste out of their mouths” from last season. Niles Paul joined that chorus in an interview with Paul said, “This is clearly a redemption year for us, and we want to let that be known.” I did a two-week look at players with something to prove, but there’s no doubt the organization as a whole has a lot to prove. But the Redskins have said the right things in the past only to do ... nothing. They can back up these words if Griffin rebounds, the pass rush is terrific, the tackling in the secondary is a lot better and the inside linebackers produce.
RG IIIAP Photo/Evan VucciQuarterback Robert Griffin III has a lot riding on his third season in the NFL.
In the spring of 2012, most of the NFL recognized Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck as the best player in the draft and a near-certain difference-maker from the moment he arrived. Baylor's Robert Griffin III was considered a close second in that analysis, and the Washington Redskins were convinced enough to bundle four high picks to ensure they could draft him at No. 2 overall.

Two years later, a massive ESPN Insider project Insider has revealed how much that notion has changed. Mike Sando polled 26 league officials -- general managers, head coaches, coordinators and other evaluators -- and found, among other things, a wide gap in views between Luck and Griffin. While Luck is now pushing into an elite tier of quarterbacks, Griffin was relegated to the third of four tiers and is, by definition, considered a below-average player with a No. 19 ranking.

Some of you might be weary of ubiquitous NFL quarterback rankings, but I thought Sando's access and process made this exercise unique. In the end, it can be viewed as a relatively accurate composite portrayal of the league's assessment on the position.

Luck's position at No. 5 spurs mild debate, but to me it was downright jarring to learn that the aggregate NFL decision-maker prefers more than half the league's starters to Griffin. If a bunch of general managers and coaches would take, say, Andy Dalton over Griffin, then, well, that's quite a fall in perception for a player who is one year removed from Pro Bowl and NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.

And why have opinions cooled so quickly? Largely, it seems, because of circumstances beyond Griffin's control and/or marginally related to his performance. Insiders who participated in the project savaged his personality, most notably for his apparent refusal to take blame for mistakes, and expressed concern about his ability to throw from the pocket.

Those reasons seem bogus to me and, more than anything, are a reminder that some NFL teams are too quick to judge players while others put too much emphasis on their most recent play. I understand why it happens -- the pressure to win immediately is enormous -- but in these views we can see the framework for how the NFL can crush a promising player before he has chance to set his feet.

Here are the facts as I see them: Griffin dropped into a dysfunctional situation, one that contributed to him being on the field for a career-changing knee injury at the end of his rookie year, and his biggest fault to date has been an inability to prevent the franchise's collapse.

How quickly the league seems to have forgotten about his 2012 performance, which was the single-biggest reason the Redskins qualified for the playoffs for the first time in five years. And look how fast the league has jumped on his 2013 campaign, viewing it as a step back rather than a predictable short-term consequence of his injury -- and the byproduct of a poisonous coaching arrangement that left him as a pawn in a nasty fight between coach Mike Shanahan and owner Dan Snyder.

One head coach in the story doubted Griffin's ability to throw from the pocket. A defensive coordinator also questioned how accurate Griffin can be from there. I wonder if that perception is based on a thorough analysis of his play, or if it's a lazy projection based on the usual assumption that talented runners can't (or don't want to be) accurate pocket passers.

In truth, data shows that Griffin has been one of the NFL's better-performing pocket passers over the past two seasons. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he ranks among the top 11 qualified passers in completion percentage (65.0), touchdown/interception ratio (2.13) and Total Quarterback Rating (65.5) on passes thrown from the pocket during the 2012 and 2013 seasons combined.

Context is important, of course, and I'm sure you can find reasons to qualify some of that success. These figures can't provide a thorough conclusion, but they do include plays that observers might have forgotten and certainly don't support a theory that questions his pocket presence.

I won't purport to have a scouting eye and always defer to those who do. But the NFL's current view of Griffin seems to me an overreaction. Along with the rest of the franchise, he seemed swallowed last season by dysfunction much bigger than him. And after he made the mistake of publicly explaining his thought process during an interception, rather than simply taking blame for the throw, he found himself branded as a diva. That might or might not be an accurate description, but if we're now downgrading players' value because of high-maintenance personalities, we're going to have to expand our search values a bit.

In the big picture, Griffin is an intelligent, strong-armed quarterback with good instincts in the running game and an example of high-level success in the NFL as recently as two seasons ago. I get that he wasn't as good in 2013 as he was in 2012, but to view him as below average seems to me the symptom of a larger problem among NFL decision-makers than a reflection of Griffin's true trajectory.

Jay Gruden energizes Redskins

June, 19, 2014
Jay Gruden AP Photo/Nick WassIn a short time, Jay Gruden has brought a more relaxed atmosphere to the Washington Redskins.
The energy is different, as it always is when there’s a new coach. New drills, new voices, a new vibe, new storylines that don’t involve backroom drama. The Washington Redskins needed it, badly, after a 3-13 season punctuated by anonymous swipes at star players and a few at the coaches. Reputations were altered; the direction of the franchise changed.

Life is calmer now for the Redskins. (Well, if you don’t count the storm over their nickname.) That’s the result of hiring Jay Gruden, whose candor, insight and friendliness provides the franchise a breath of fresh air. But also an unknown: Though opinion around the NFL was split on his hiring, Gruden has passed the first test of his tenure by laying a solid foundation. And the Redskins head into training camp next month energized.

It’s about a new trust, felt by players and coaches. Gruden has made it clear from the get-go: This is about the players. There’s a different level of ownership by the players and even some of the coaches. Maybe it helps that Gruden took a different path to reach this point, starring in the Arena League for many years, but he coaches without much of an ego, or at least not one that overwhelms him. He didn’t come to Washington with a system, he came with beliefs in what he wanted to run and fused them with what worked well here in the past. Not all coaches operate that way.

Any change after such a disastrous season feels like a good one. Any new voice feels like the right one, especially when the new guy is a lot different than the old one. Mike Shanahan loved having total control; Gruden favors delegating authority. Shanahan did not jump into drills to provide a look for the offense (others would); Gruden will do just that. Not that one way is the right way. And, of course, one of them won Super Bowls and the other hasn’t won an NFL game yet. That’s why, for now, all we know is that the offseason has been a mostly good one for the Redskins.

The feel-good offseason started with quarterback Robert Griffin III’s work. He got the necessary work in that he could not get last season because of his knee. He worked hard on his mechanics and will continue to do so; he looked much more relaxed around Gruden than under Shanahan. He’s not wearing a brace; he can be more himself. He’s as confident as he’s been in a while.

However, Griffin also is still learning to be a pocket passer. That doesn’t just mean throwing a pass from the pocket, but also knowing when to run and where and how quickly to go from your first option to your second or third. It doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t do it, but it does mean there’s an ongoing transition that will take time. Nor does it mean he won’t make plays in the process. If he’s more himself, why wouldn’t he? There are things he does well as a passer; the trick for Gruden is incorporating those while he improves in other areas. Knock the Shanahans all you want, they coaxed a terrific season from a rookie quarterback two years ago.

DeSean Jackson’s arrival might not be the same feel-good story because there’s some risk involved, but it certainly can be cause for optimism. The guy is a playmaker; the Redskins needed a playmaker.

But Jackson is an emotional player, and the Redskins need to successfully harness that and know how to deal with him. The good news for Washington is that Griffin made it a point to learn what motivates Jackson and bond with him. That helps now; it needs to pay off during the season.

The defense can feel good, too. It added pass-rushers in Jason Hatcher and, the Redskins hope, Trent Murphy. They have a vocal leader at safety in Ryan Clark. They’ve added two outstanding linebacker coaches in Kirk Olivadotti (inside) and Brian Baker (outside), the latter of whom has focused heavily on pass rush techniques. They’ve talked a great game about a more aggressive pass rush.

But as the Redskins exit the spring, Hatcher is coming off knee surgery, joining two other key players along the defensive line in that regard. The defense might have five starters 30 years or older and there are questions about what certain players have left.

Then there’s Gruden. Players have talked about the new energy in practices, stemming from him and his new hires. Coaches like him because they have more freedom -- to hire, to implement ideas, to coach. It matters. It’s too early to say he changed the culture; Shanahan was said to have done the same thing. But Gruden has changed the mood. There’s a different level of passion, stemming from his energy and the coaches. It rubs off on players. Because of that, it (should) enable him to command the room, a pre-hire criticism. That is, as long as you bring in the right players who won’t abuse that trust. It’s a fine line.

Is he organized enough? That was a knock before he was hired. Then again, his offensive coordinator, Sean McVay, is ultra-organized. Can Gruden command the room? How will he handle it if the defense struggles and he feels they should tweak or change their coverages or philosophy? Or how will he handle in-game adjustments, clock management? Player discipline?

We’ve learned a lot about Gruden, but there’s so much more to learn -- questions that can’t be answered until the season begins. Until then, the Redskins can feel optimistic. They’ve been at this point before. The next step has always been the hardest.