Hip-hop music thumped off the walls of the Allison Indoor Football Practice Facility on Baylor University’s campus the morning of March 21. Robert Griffin III and other Baylor seniors compiled for their pro day a mix that included popular hits and some lesser-known, slowed down “screwed” beats from the subgenre born in Texas.
Kyle Shanahan grinned. The music took him back 10 years to his college days at the University of Texas and more recently to his four-year stint coaching for the Houston Texans. Then the Washington Redskins offensive coordinator crouched on the turf and was satisfied to confirm in person what he already had seen Griffin do over and over again on video.
Shanahan was only 15 feet from Griffin as the reigning Heisman Trophy winner displayed the strong arm, core strength and nimble feet that helped him earn recognition as college football’s best player in 2011. Even then, more than a month before the Redskins drafted Griffin second overall, he envisioned how Griffin would fit into Washington’s offense.
Now Shanahan has the ultimate platform to showcase his expertise. In his third season with the club, he has a quarterback hungrier than Donovan McNabb and more physically gifted than Rex Grossman. The Redskins’ success going forward depends largely on Shanahan and Griffin’s symbiotic working relationship and, more specifically, Shanahan’s ability to tailor his offense to extract quality out of one of the NFL’s most talented prospects.
“It is exciting,” Shanahan said. “We’ve had a different quarterback each year we’ve played here. Even though some of our quarterbacks that we’ve had here aren’t the fastest guys, we still do as much keepers as almost anybody, even with slower quarterbacks in our past. So you definitely get an advantage when you get a faster guy in here. The challenge for me is like it is every year: figuring out what they do best.”
That process began by studying Griffin’s success in Baylor’s spread offense. His elite speed and ability to hit a variety of throws jump off the screen.
Coach Mike Shanahan believes those talents suit Washington’s scheme so well that he traded three first-round draft picks and a second-rounder to position the Redskins to select him.
“He fits into our system perfectly because we like to run play-action, quarterback keeps, bootlegs,” Mike Shanahan said in May. “With his speed, he can get on the edge and do things most quarterbacks can’t do.”
Griffin’s transition to the NFL, however, is not as simple as substituting him for past quarterbacks and running the same plays. Not only must the Redskins maximize his unique physical talents, but Griffin also needs time to fully grasp the mental challenges of playing quarterback at the NFL level.
Reading defenses, understanding coverages and knowing protections are a lot for a rookie to handle.
Kyle Shanahan has spent more than four months analyzing what Griffin is comfortable with in order to use those concepts during the regular season. Griffin, along with every Redskins quarterback, took about 600 practice repetitions during the offseason program. Training camp practices and preseason games provided more data.
“Your job is to try everything out, see what these guys are good at, and you study it, study it every day of your life,” Kyle said. “You do it with them, you do it by yourself, and you collectively figure out what gives our team the best chance to move the chains, what gives our team the best chance to win a game.”
That means transferring to Washington some of what Griffin did at Baylor, says former Super Bowl champion coach Jon Gruden.
“It doesn’t matter what you know or what your assistants know,” said Gruden, who is an analyst on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” “You have to do what the quarterback likes, what he does well, and you have to really accentuate those things.”
Gruden cited the success Cam Newton and Tim Tebow — two Heisman Trophy-winning, dual-threat quarterbacks — had last season under Carolina coordinator Rob Chudzinski and Denver coordinator Mike McCoy, respectively.
“Just a phenomenal job of adapting to your quarterback,” said Gruden, who was once Kyle Shanahan’s boss on Tampa Bay’s coaching staff.
“So I think you’re going to see elements of what Robert Griffin did at Baylor — I’m saying elements. You’re going to see an occasional read option. You’re going to see an occasional designed quarterback run because this kid is special with the ball in his hands, as well as throwing it.”
But even if the playbook is perfectly adapted to Griffin’s comforts, asking a rookie quarterback to carry a team tests the boundaries of reasonable ambition. That’s why Mike and Kyle Shanahan have preached the importance of Griffin’s supporting cast.
The organization has established some continuity among its offensive personnel, in addition to adding receivers Pierre Garcon and Joshua Morgan in the offseason.
“People have been in this system now — this is the third year — and everybody is getting better,” said Grossman, who followed Kyle to Washington from Houston in 2010. “Offensive linemen have been here a while, some receivers. We’re pretty deep because we understand exactly what Kyle wants.
“With the addition of Robert and some of the other plays we might do, that we didn’t do in Houston, it’s going to be a good year. It’s going to be entertaining.”
Kyle Shanahan, through the lens of Washington’s play-caller, emphasizes the importance of disseminating responsibility and not relying too heavily on a rookie quarterback.
“You have to be able to take the pressure off him,” he said. “How do you do that? Usually it’s by running the ball. It’s doing different things in the pass game. It’s just not asking him to do everything. Someone else has to make a play here or there and make it relaxed for him.”
Griffin says he has enjoyed his first four months working with Kyle Shanahan and how their relationship has evolved. He appreciates how young the staff is — Shanahan and quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur are 32 — and what he’s learned from them.
“It’s definitely fun,” Griffin said. “We’ve got a good atmosphere out here every time that we come out and in the film room. I think it’s a total package — it’s definitely a technique type of thing, it’s X’s and O’s. These guys know what they’re talking about. I’m trusting those guys and doing what they’re asking me to do.”
And that should make Griffin feel right at home, like a rap song on a Texas morning.