Thursday, December 14, 2006

Cornelius Griffin passed a milestone this month. It wasn’t his 400th tackle or his 100th game. This was a milestone that makes many athletes cringe. The Washington Redskins’ defensive tackle turned 30 on Dec. 3.

Coincidentally, that was the day the Atlanta Falcons embarrassed Washington’s run defense for 256 yards, easily the most by a Redskins opponent in a game in Griffin’s three years in which he played a majority of the snaps.

“Thirty’s just a number,” Griffin said. “I don’t think age matters. There are a lot of lineman over 30 playing well. The only difference is that I have more wisdom than I used to.”

Actually, there are major differences from the Griffin of 2004. That Griffin, freshly signed away from the NFC East rival New York Giants, was a monster. He was credited with 56 tackles — 18 more than his previous career-best — including a league-leading 15 behind the line despite missing a game with a right hip flexor. He also tied for the team lead with a career-best six sacks as Washington’s defense ranked third in the NFL.

Griffin’s left hip flexor kept limited him to 13 games in 2005 and his numbers — 35 tackles, six behind the line and four sacks — dropped commensurately, as did those of the entire defense, which slipped to ninth.

However, even the torn MCL in his right knee and surgery on his left shoulder, which kept him from working out nearly as hard this past offseason, couldn’t have prepared Griffin for the disaster that 2006 has been. The Redskins allowed an average of just 87 rushing yards with Griffin on the field in 2004 and 2005. That figure has risen to 134.7 yards a game this season while Griffin has just two tackles behind the line and one sack among his 55 stops. The Redskins have sunk to 23rd on defense.

Assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams said the recurring injuries and more frequent double-teams have limited Griffin the past two years. Griffin agreed, to some extent.

“Maybe teams approach me differently than they did before ‘04, but I just have to play better,” said Griffin, who missed the losses to Tennessee and Indianapolis with yet another hip flexor. “People thought I was overpaid when I first came here, but then they realized, ‘I guess, he’s not.’ Yes, ‘04 was personally satisfying, but when all was said and done, we were 6-10, so last year was better because we made the playoffs. This year has been very difficult. We’ve been tested, but if we keep working hard, we’re laying the foundation for something good.”

While Griffin wants to finish the final three games on a strong note, he can’t help but dream of a better 2007. The Redskins — who are 1-7 without him, 20-18 with him during his three years in Washington — share the same sentiments.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that I can come back next year and play the way I did in ‘04,” Griffin said. “I’m really not slower and I’m smarter. The difference is that I wasn’t as strong this year because I wasn’t able to work out in the offseason after having my shoulder done and tearing my MCL. I played at 305 [pounds] in ‘04. I’m 295 now and it shows. The shoulder still bothers me. I’m not as strong as I was, that’s obvious. But I still expected to have a lot better year. This year is just going to make me work harder next year. My main goal for next year is to stay healthy and be myself again.”

The Redskins would certainly welcome the return of a fully healthy Griffin.

“We still see flashes of the old Griff, but he’ll tell you he’s not as strong as he was,” defensive end Phillip Daniels said. “When Griff came here, it didn’t matter who was blocking him, he was running through people. When he came off a block, his first three steps towards the quarterback were explosive. Sometimes injuries take time to heal.”

Williams believes that Griffin can return to that top form in 2007.

“Cornelius is one of our inspirational leaders, one of our athletic playmakers,” Williams said. “I see him being a force for several more years.”

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