In the first five weeks of the season, the Washington Redskins’ offense developed an effective formula, effective enough to rank it among the league’s leaders. Alfred Morris ran the ball, and Robert Griffin III threw it. (And occasionally, of course, RG3 did what RG3 does — let his spontaneity take him where it will.)
You couldn’t have asked for much better results, especially since we’re talking about two rookies. Every game, Morris rushed for 75 or more yards. Every game, Griffin completed 60 to 70 percent of his passes. And not coincidentally, every game the Redskins had a chance to win.
But in the NFL, you can’t keep doing the same things forever. Defenses these days are all about disruption, about taking you out of your comfort zone. And the Minnesota Vikings made it clear from the beginning Sunday that the Redskins weren’t just going to pound away at them with Morris, the way they had against everybody else.
On Morris’ first carry, around right end, cornerback Antoine Winfield knifed in and dropped him for a 4-yard loss. On the next play, to the other side, end Jared Allen tackled him for a 3-yard loss. Alfred never did become the factor that he’d been in other games. He scored a touchdown, sure, but he finished with a season-low 47 yards in 16 attempts, 10 of which were for 3 yards or less.
It didn’t matter, though, because the Redskins found other ways to win. That’s a huge sign of progress for the offense, as big as producing 31 points against one of the league’s better defenses (in a 38-26 victory). Opponents are going to make you change your habits, go away from your strengths, and you have to be able to adjust. Or to put it another way, the best offenses have multiple personalities. If you’re a one-trick pony, the Other Guys will eventually exploit that.
Fortunately for RG3, Mike Shanahan is all about balance. As Shanahan and son Kyle have said over and over, you don’t want a rookie quarterback to feel like he has to shoulder too much of the load. Learning the position, the most complicated in football, is enough of a burden for a kid fresh out of college. So the Shanahans got Morris up and running from the get-go. In his first five games, Alfred rushed for 491 yards — the fourth-highest total by a first-year back in modern history. (Yup, only Eric Dickerson, Adrian Peterson and Billy Sims have had more through five weeks.)
They complement each other perfectly. The threat of Morris keeps some of the rush off Griffin and makes his play-action passes more problematical, and the threat of Griffin as a passer and runner gives Alfred room to roam. But the Vikings weren’t just going to sit back and let it be business and usual for the Redskins, particularly with RG3 coming off a concussion. No, they were going to attack the running game and try to make Washington’s offense one-dimensional.
A smart plan, without a doubt. It just didn’t work. It didn’t work because the Redskins’ defense scored one touchdown and came within 6 yards of a second. But it also didn’t work because Griffin wouldn’t let it. For starters, he spread the ball around equitably among eight receivers. Nobody had more than four catches (Santana Moss) or more than 46 yards (Moss, Fred Davis). He also crossed up the Vikings ‘D’ by tossing a short touchdown pass to fullback Darrel Young, only the second TD reception of Young’s three-year career. (When the opposition takes away your bread and butter — Morris — you make them pay by going against your tendencies.)
Mostly, though, Griffin just released his Inner RG3. In one second-half series, he ran the ball three straight times and four in all (the last three out of the shotgun). Then there was his game-sealing 76-yard touchdown on a quarterback draw — his version of Alex Ovechkin’s on-his-back goal. That bit of bravado sent a message just like the Vikes sent a message at the outset, when they threw Morris for consecutive losses. The message was: Go ahead, if you must, and make my running back disappear. I’ll just replace him.
Here’s a stat that shows you how unusual this Redskins victory was: They scored 38 points without a TD catch by either a wide receiver or a tight end. That’s happened just two other times since the franchise came to Washington (against the New Orleans Saints in 2001 and St. Louis Cardinals in 1983). But that’s what it takes to win, week in and week out, in the NFL. You need a Plan B. Sometimes you might even need a Plan Z.
• Dan Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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