There will be times this autumn, and many other instances in the years to come, when an entire fan base holds its breath watching Robert Griffin III. The exalted franchise quarterback of the Washington Redskins will tuck the football under his arm and race beyond the line of scrimmage into harm’s way.
As the Redskins attempt to exploit Griffin’s elite speed, hulking defenders will seek to punish him. The health of the Redskins’ most important player will hang in the balance.
This will create some crucial decisions - and high-stakes gambles - for Griffin, coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator and playcaller Kyle Shanahan. They must use Griffin’s speed to help the offense but keep him healthy and preserve his effectiveness.
Speed at the quarterback position “is a two-edged sword,” Mike Shanahan said.
For Griffin, that balancing act begins with a mindset.
“One thing I won’t do is play with fear,” said Griffin, who is 6-foot-2, 223 pounds. “That doesn’t mean I’m going to go try to run over linebackers and safeties. Especially in college, guys try to take you out, so it’s no different in the pros. It’s just that these guys are a lot better at doing what they’re trying to do, so I’ll be smart.”
Awareness and luck also are required for Griffin to be an effective runner over a 16-game season. He knows that after tearing the ACL in his right knee at Baylor in 2009 on a carry for no gain.
It was one of his 528 collegiate rushing attempts. With that much experience, a quarterback develops an ability to gauge danger as a play develops.
“You get a feel for when to slide and when to run out of bounds, and I think he’s got a natural feel for that, even in the open field,” Mike Shanahan said. “A lot of times he’ll outrun people, but when he doesn’t have that angle, he’s very smart when to make the decision to slide, and in this league you’re going to have to learn to do that.”
There’s a bit of a problem, though.
“You probably won’t even call what I do a slide,” Griffin said, “because I don’t know how to slide.”
That’s something Griffin can work on during training camp, which starts in late July.
Simultaneously, Mike and Kyle Shanahan will continue implementing their plan for maximizing Griffin’s speed. They can control some of the danger. When they decide to call a play that requires Griffin to keep the ball, the risk is calculated.
Mike Shanahan has said he can exploit Griffin’s speed in numerous ways, including running some of the same option concepts that helped Griffin amass 2,257 rushing yards at Baylor and win the Heisman Trophy.
“You definitely don’t want to run him every time because you don’t want to get him hurt,” Kyle Shanahan said. “But also you don’t want to run him every time because it’s pretty easy for a defense to stop the guy if you’re running him every time. That’s why one of the most exciting things about Robert is he can definitely make plays with his legs, but he’s just as special of a thrower, too.”
Griffin ultimately feels comfortable protecting himself.
“The coach might call a run play for you as a quarterback, and you have to be able to know if it’s early in the game or early in the season, I don’t need to go out there and try to be a pinball,” Griffin said. “It’s your responsibility, as well, to try to protect yourself. You have to realize coach is trying to win and I’m trying to win, as well. So whatever we need to do, I’m willing to do.”