Hi, folks. My vacation is over, and it’s time to look forward to next week’s start of Redskins training camp. Coaches report directly to Richmond on Monday the 22nd. Players report two days later for physicals, and practice begins Thursday the 25th. The season is just about here.
Until then, I’ll examine the Redskins’ strengths and questions at each position entering camp. Let’s start at the top:
Returning starter: Robert Griffin III
Impact reserve: Kirk Cousins
Others: Rex Grossman, Pat White
Key departures: None
New faces: White (unrestricted free agent)
Final cuts history: Mike Shanahan kept three in 2012, two in 2011 and three in 2010.
What to like: The upside is exhilarating if Griffin returns to full health from Jan. 9 surgery to revise the ACL reconstruction and repair the lateral collateral ligament and medial meniscus in his right knee. I believe the Redskins would contend for the NFC title if Griffin were fully fit for all 16 games. That’s a big ‘if,’ of course, and I’ll address that below.
Griffin improved throwing from the pocket as his rookie season progressed. That took time, as expected, after he played three and a half seasons in Baylor’s speed option offense, which featured simple quick throws to perimeter and downfield shots off of play action. As Griffin grew more comfortable with reading NFL coverages, the speed of the pro game and the variety of throws required by the Redskins’ offense, he better anticipated receivers getting open. His completion percentages during the second half of the season don’t always show it because he played hurt in the final three games, but coaches saw it. His 65.6 completion percentage still ranked fourth in the NFL, and he tied New England’s Tom Brady for the league’s best interception percentage (1.3 percent).
Griffin’s inability to build on that progress during spring practices was one of the greatest drawbacks of his injury. He missed 10 organized team activities and minicamp because of his rehabilitation. That’s a big reason why the zone read will remain part of the Redskins’ offense. Just the threat of Griffin running the ball slows the pass rush, causes linebackers to be indecisive and hesitate, and it simplifies coverages. Mike and Kyle Shanahan hope to rely on those advantages while Griffin continues to improve as a passer. Griffin is physically capable of making every throw because his core muscles and arm are so strong. So as his comfort level increases, his effectiveness will, also. That’s a scary proposition for defenses.
Behind Griffin, Cousins’ 329-yard, two-touchdown performance in a December win at Cleveland reduces anxiety levels at Redskins Park. The backup showed he is physically and mentally capable of successfully running the bootlegs and play-action passes Mike Shanahan is known for. Cousins is well prepared and embraces his role supporting Griffin with as positive an attitude as any coach could hope for.
Preseason questions: We won’t know until Griffin plays in a regular-season game whether he has fully recovered and is back to being the dynamic athlete that shined last season. We’ll have clues along the way, but it will be an excruciating wait for the team and its fans. There were, however, reasons for optimism through the first six months of his rehabilitation. The nature of his injury hastened his recovery. Because the right patellar tendon graft serving as his ACL did not tear—it only destabilized—Griffin did not experience as much swelling or peripheral problems as he did when he first tore his ACL at Baylor in 2009. By July, he progressed to where he could sprint explosively and cut without problems. Will that continue once defenders are out to hit him and his instincts take over? We’ll see.
The injury also required significant emotional healing. Having two ACL reconstruction surgeries in three and a half years threatens Griffin’s livelihood, so perhaps it’s no surprise he chafed, in hindsight, about how he was used last season. Griffin still has not publicly explained details of his displeasure. He wants to divert focus from that potential distraction and keep the media’s focus on the team. Make no mistake, though: it was an issue earlier this offseason. Griffin and Shanahan have discussed it and are moving on, but the zone read will remain in the offense.
During training camp, Griffin and Shanahan’s relationship will play out in Griffin’s return to practice. Griffin admittedly must be restrained by team trainers and coaches from pushing his rehabilitation. He even publicly advanced his target return date from the Sept. 9 regular-season opener to the start of training camp on July 25. That made the situation even more delicate. Shanahan will listen to team doctors in managing Griffin’s workload and exposure to risk in preseason games, and it’s in Griffin’s and the team’s best interests to help that process by heeding instructions instead of indirectly pressuring Shanahan.
Cousins inspired confidence by playing well against Cleveland, but his sample size is small, as he admits. He threw three interceptions in 33 regular season pass attempts, a sign he, too, is still ascending the learning curve. Cousins spoke last season about how throwing off of feel and instincts occasionally resulted in risky throws. Experience and comfort in the offense should alleviate that. Cousins benefited in that regard from working with the first-string offense all spring, and he could continue that progression in preseason games, depending on Griffin’s status.
White is an intriguing prospect because of his collegiate success in a speed option offense, but he still must prove he can mentally master the Redskins’ offense and consistently make strong, accurate throws if he is to regain a foothold in the NFL after a three-season hiatus. Here’s predicting Grossman easily beats him out for the third quarterback spot. White is not eligible for the practice squad.