It took only two plays in Sunday's season opener for the new Washington Redskins offense to come into focus. Quarterback Robert Griffin III is dynamic with his right arm and his legs, and coach Mike Shanahan is going to exploit that in a way familiar to anyone who watched Griffin play his way to the Heisman Trophy at Baylor last season.
The "Oh, boy," moment was Griffin's 12-yard run on Washington's second snap. The Redskins unveiled a zone read run, effectively marking Griffin's arrival in the NFL.
He lined up in shotgun with running back Alfred Morris to his right. After receiving the snap, Griffin held the ball in Morris' belly while reading New Orleans left defensive end Cameron Jordan. When Jordan crashed down to position himself to stop a handoff to Morris, Griffin kept the ball and raced around the right edge for a first down.
It was the first step toward a rousing 40-32 victory and a performance that earned Griffin NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors Wednesday.
"The zone read, there's so many things you can do off of it," Griffin said after Wednesday's practice. "It's kind of like pick your poison. What do you want to stop? Do you want to stop the throws off of it? Do you want to stop the running game? Do you want to stop the running back? They chose what they wanted to stop, and we had to make plays in other areas, and we made those plays."
The scheme produced chunks of yardage through the air — run fakes had New Orleans' linebackers out of position throughout the game — and on the ground.
Griffin and Morris, unofficially, ran 10 zone-read running plays for 36 yards Sunday. Griffin carried four times for 20 yards, and Morris took six handoffs for 16.
The running element remains a work in progress as Griffin and Morris continue to refine the timing and feel required to operate it effectively.
In its basic form, Griffin takes the shotgun snap and puts the ball in Morris' stomach while reading the defense — usually the defensive end. In a split second, he decides whether to keep the ball or hand off to Morris.
Morris, meanwhile, has to be ready to take the handoff on every play. The exchange can be delicate, especially considering Morris operated mostly out of the power I-formation in college and took most of his carries from a quarterback under center.
"Sometimes you see a wide-open hole, and you don't want to let the ball go," Morris said. "Most times, it's just a feel. In practice and stuff, he'll ride you. You know once he let's his hands go, you just let the ball [come].
"Sometimes he tricks you. You think you're getting it, and all of a sudden he snatches it out of there. You've just got to kind of be like a loose, tight pocket, if that makes any sense."
A loose, tight pocket — that's an oxymoron that exemplifies the challenge. Griffin is used to it, though, from his collegiate days. It just takes repetition with the running backs for both parties to get used to how the other gives and takes the ball.
Griffin also has realized he must hone his decision-making at the NFL level.
"Defenses, guys are faster, smarter," he said. "Guys know their responsibilities, they know where they're supposed to be, they know what gap they're supposed to have. That can make it a little more difficult."
After reviewing the game video, Griffin did not identify any handoffs he should have made or ones he wishes he would have kept. That would please Shanahan, who extensively studied video in the offseason to prepare to coach the zone read with Griffin on the team.
Shanahan went back to the start of his coaching career at the University of Oklahoma, where they ran the wishbone and some variations of the option. He also watched game video of the Carolina Panthers and quarterback Cam Newton, as well as Baylor's offense to identify Griffin's strengths.
"With Robert, the difference is you have a guy that can run under a 4.4 40 [-yard dash] and then has the capabilities of really putting pressure on the defense," Shanahan said. "You only have to run an option or an option scheme maybe two or three times a game. You may run it 10 times a game. But in the back of their mind, a defense knows you have the ability to do it, so you got a chance to keep them off-balance even if you don't run it a lot."
Shanahan sounded like something of a scientist as he discussed the scheme. With Griffin's many talents at his disposal, the possibilities are extensive.
Griffin is happy to be the guinea pig.
"The coaches are coming up with new concepts every day," Griffin said. "I think their imaginations are running wild. It will be fun to see what we do and just go out there and execute it."
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