- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 30, 2012

TAMPA, Fla. — On an otherwise innocuous third down, Robert Griffin III slipped the football into running back Evan Royster’s arms and backed away. The rookie quarterback thrust his arms in the air as he stood alone on the chewed-up turf at Raymond James Stadium in an exaggerated gesture to remind any defenders in the neighborhood he didn’t have the football.

The “not me” arms became as familiar during the Washington Redskins’ 24-22 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday as Griffin’s braids and easy grin. When Griffin neglected to lift his arms after handing off the football on a zone read play, one official reminded him not to make the same mistake.

“I said, ‘Yes, sir, I’ll do it next time,’” said Griffin, who finished with 323 yards passing and another 43 on the ground. “I did it next time.”

Battered and bashed in the season’s first three games, Griffin showed he can operate the Redskins’ offense without absorbing a dizzying succession of hits. The Buccaneers knocked down Griffin 10 times, but he avoided the string of cringe-inducing hits that stalked his first three weeks in the NFL’s regular season.

Last week, the Cincinnati Bengals put Griffin on the ground 28 times, including a handful of savage hits that left the quarterback slow to pull himself up. Thanks in part to the Redskins’ option-heavy offense, opponents contacted Griffin to the ground 53 times in those first three games. In exchange for the quarterback’s discomfort, the Redskins got 91 points.

“You can’t just talk tough and then play soft,” Griffin said after the Bengals game.

That toughness also puts quarterbacks in position to crack ribs or sustain a concussion. After one of last week’s licks, Griffin underwent a concussion test that was negative but hinted at the risk his scampers present.

A simple formula protected Griffin’s 217 pounds Sunday. Since the Redskins jumped to an early advantage against the NFL’s worst pass defense, they didn’t need to rely on option plays. That kept with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s pledge not to “major” in the option. Even with tackle Trent Williams hobbled by a bone bruise on his right knee, protected by a bulky brace, the inconsistent offensive line provided Griffin ample time in the pocket. And Griffin reciprocated with quick, accurate throws to complement fellow rookie Alfred Morris’ effective runs.

The plays were designed to get the ball out of Griffin’s hands (he rushed seven times compared to 12 attempts against the Bengals) and, when he kept the ball, to use deeper drops.

“I was thankful he didn’t take that many hits because I was pretty upset,” Morris said. “I don’t like seeing my quarterback on the ground.”

The option kept Griffin upright and exposed him to the unusual level of punishment. It also helped the Redskins keep pace in three shootouts. But with three early touchdowns Sunday, the Redskins used the option just once in the first half. Even the triple-threat backfield of Griffin, Morris and receiver Brandon Banks that befuddled the Bengals didn’t appear until the second half.

Of Griffin’s four first-half knock-downs, two followed passes, another came after safety Mark Barron crunched him an 8-yard designed run to force a fumble a yard short of the goalline. Receiver Pierre Garcon corralled the ball for a touchdown.

“He’s growing in the offense,” Williams said. “I’m always in his ear about those hits, man. … It definitely feels better to see him not go through so much.”

Barron added another lick, driving Griffin into the air and slamming him to the ground like a professional wrestler. That earned a 15-yard penalty.

“It’s illegal,” Griffin said as he smiled. “That’s not my fault.”

Another penalty for roughing the passer came in the third quarter when Mason Foster drilled Griffin well outside of the end zone after he released the football. The call delighted Griffin.

Two more hits came on sacks, one on a botched screen pass.

In the game-winning drive that started with 1:42 remaining, the Buccaneers knocked down Griffin twice. But, as usual, he bounced back up as he led the Redskins into field goal range.

All of this created a 60 minutes of football that didn’t exact a similar toll on Griffin’s body to weeks past. The creative formations — pistol, no-back shotgun — remained. And Griffin survived.

• Nathan Fenno can be reached at nfenno@washingtontimes.com.

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