Imagine a scientist who dedicates his life to curing a disease. He tirelessly studies it, examining for weaknesses. He experiments, collects data and performs more tests, as the cycle plods. Meanwhile, the quest for the remedy consumes him, even defines him.
In the world of football, Kyle Shanahan is that scientist — sans the disheveled gray hair and lab coat, of course.
Shanahan is a football junkie who freely acknowledges he has no life outside the sport. He's addicted to watching film, a passion that formed as a boy following his father.
To Shanahan, defenses are the disease. And last season, he discovered the cure.
"The threat of a quarterback who can run, especially in the running game with the zone-read, whether that's working or not — just the threat of it — opens up everything else," he declared Wednesday.
Shanahan couldn't hide his excitement nine months after his eureka moment. The threat Robert Griffin III posed as a runner last year slowed opponents' pass rush, froze linebackers and simplified coverages. That threat, he discovered, produces a cornucopia of yardage and points and victories.
If Griffin embraced that fact — which the game film and statistics prove — then there would be harmony at Redskins Park.
Griffin does not want to be a running back. He wants to be an elite passer. But as Shanahan so forcefully explained to reporters Wednesday, the zone read will help him to achieve that goal.
"I go crazy thinking about blitzes every week," Shanahan said. "How are we going to pick all this stuff up? About halfway through the year, I'm starting to realize we're not getting any of these blitzes that I used to see. It takes a lot of stuff you used to worry about, you don't get."
Shanahan and his father surely have emphasized to their franchise quarterback how the zone read will help him become an elite passer by forcing opponents to play sound 11-on-11 defense. There's plenty of evidence in game film cut-ups and the list of NFL rookie passing records Griffin set in helping the Redskins average more yards per play than any other team.
Griffin grew up a fan of Mike Shanahan's Denver Broncos. He watched Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway lead two Super Bowl-champion offenses that ranked fourth in the NFL in yards per pass without the help of the zone read. And Mike and Kyle Shanahan would be among the first to say Griffin has the arm strength, accuracy, mechanics, vision and decision-making skills to be such an effective passer.
We also can't diminish how Griffin's second severe anterior cruciate ligament injury and rehabilitation impacts his psyche. He was in tears after waking up from surgery Jan. 9. Griffin requires some emotional healing, as do others in the organization.
Ultimately, though, eliminating the zone read from the Redskins' game plan as it relates to Griffin's health is a moot point.
The threat of the zone read slows the opposing pass rush, which helps preserves Griffin's health in the pocket.
More importantly, though, Griffin's health depends so much more on his decision-making on passing plays than who carries the ball on running plays. Never lose sight of the fact his three major injuries last season occurred while scrambling on pass plays.
On the play Griffin was concussed against Atlanta in Week 5, Griffin decided not to throw to Joshua Morgan, who was open in the end zone running to the post and calling for the ball. Griffin rolled out after being pressured from his right. He slipped trying to cut upfield near the sideline instead of getting out of bounds, and his head absorbed a linebacker's hit.
Griffin could have thrown to Morgan. He could have thrown the ball away or run out of bounds. Instead, instincts, indecisiveness and inexperience carried him into danger.
Coaches expect those factors to diminish in Year 2 because of his increased quarterbacking knowledge and a renewed desire to hone his playmaking instincts in order to stay healthy.
Said quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur: "He'll recognize, 'Hey, we have zone coverage. I'm going to try to stay a passer or throw the ball away. Hey, I've got man coverage. I can take off and run.' He'll recognize those situations a little bit better and hopefully stay out of harm's way."
Kyle Shanahan understands his role in keeping Griffin healthy involves coaching, not play-calling. He must help Griffin improve his recognition and sense of timing.
He knows the coaching staff must ensure the running back picks up the free blitzer, which Evan Royster failed to do against Baltimore on the play on which Griffin scrambled and injured his lateral collateral ligament.
"I'm Robert's coach," Shanahan said, "so it's my job to help him with everything."
Convincing Griffin of the zone read's benefits is the starting point.
Griffin would help himself by embracing them and the Shanahans' expertise. And that should be easy for him because, given last season's evidence, they don't require a scientist to figure out.
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