RICHMOND, Va. -- First-year Redskins head coach Jay Gruden’s stated goal of trying to "develop [Robert Griffin III] as an all-around quarterback" enters its more public phase Thursday night at FedEx Field, when Washington begins its preseason schedule and debuts its upgraded passing game against the visiting New England Patriots and their significantly improved secondary.
All preseason openers are not created equal, and this one will be an especially well-anticipated showing for the Redskins, who hired a quarterback-friendly head coach and made two major additions to the receiving corps in free agency with the signing of ex-Eagles star DeSean Jackson and ex-Cardinal Andre Roberts. With Jackson and Roberts joining forces with Washington’s No. 1 receiver Pierre Garcon, who led the NFL in both receptions (113) and targets (184) last year, the Redskins’ Griffin-led passing game and its expected evolution into a more balanced and consistent threat will be the dominant storyline of August in the nation’s capital.
No more daily knee rehabilitation updates this year. The focus has shifted from Griffin’s legs to his throwing arm and decision-making, and the Redskins plan to protect their quarterback and keep him in the pocket more than ever to gauge his progress as a passer now that he has more weapons to choose from than at any other time in his D.C. tenure.
It all sounds good, but we’re about to find out how it works in live game situations, not just theory.
"It has to be a case of pick your poison this season," said Jackson, who signed with Washington in April after his stunning release by the Eagles following a career-year performance and Pro Bowl selection in 2013. "Whatever the defense tries to do, hopefully we’ve got an answer for it. Honestly, I think it’s a special group, because we’ve got receivers who have done some great things in the league so far.
"[Griffin] has options on every play. And it’s not only just receivers, but he has tight ends and running backs to keep his eye on and get the ball to. Our job is to get open so we make it easy on him and he doesn’t have to struggle. Then if he’s playing well and finding his receivers, the sky’s the limit for us. We just look forward to lighting it up, lighting defenses up."
The reality this year in Washington is this: If Garcon finishes with another 184 targets, something probably went wrong. That kind of receiving workload should be spread much more equitably among the likes of Jackson, Roberts, Garcon, second-year tight end Jordan Reed, the ageless Santana Moss and impressive rookie receiver Ryan Grant, a fifth-round pick out of Tulane.
Last year, Garcon’s one-man breakout produced those league-best 113 catches for 1,346 yards and five touchdowns. The next four most productive Redskins wide receivers (Moss, Leonard Hankerson, Aldrick Robinson and Josh Morgan) combined for just 110 receptions, 1,406 yards and seven touchdowns. But the end result was a 3-13 last-place finish for the defending NFC East champion Redskins and an NFC-worst 144 point scoring differential (334 points for, 478 allowed).
"Oh, man, we’ve got great options this year," Griffin said after Washington’s joint practice session with New England on Monday morning at Redskins training camp. "Whoever’s out there, and in every situation, I trust every single guy that he’s going to do his job and be where he’s supposed to be. That’s why we worked so hard and what’s why I met with these guys twice over the offseason, to make sure we’re in line with everything we need to do. They know everything that can come up in a game, and now it’s just about going out and doing it."
Gruden wants to spread the ball around this season, with the tight ends and running backs taking on a larger role in the passing game and no one receiver dominating Griffin’s targets, so as not to make it easier for a defense to take a single weapon away.
"Gruden wants everybody involved," Roberts said. "Pierre’s going to have his catches, DeSean is going to have his catches and I’ll have mine. But we don’t necessarily need anyone with 100 or even 80-90 catches to make this offense run. It’s never a bad thing to have a whole bunch of weapons, because when you do, we’re all going to eat and we’re all going to have fun doing it."
The Redskins’ new-look receiving corps didn’t appear to have all that much fun this week in its combined workouts with the Patriots, with New England’s revamped starting cornerback tandem of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner playing a physical, jamming style of coverage in live team drills. Gruden expressed disappointment in how often his receivers were taken out of their routes or delayed in their release by the aggressive bump coverage, and they will no doubt be tested again by the Patriots secondary taking that hands-on approach Thursday night.
"We need to do a much better job of getting off the bump-and-run," Gruden said Monday. "[The Patriots] do a nice job defensively of really slamming our receivers from time to time, so we need to work on our releases, give our quarterback some better plays maybe."
But in Tuesday’s practice with New England, it was largely more of the same, with the Redskins receivers only sporadically beating press coverage and Griffin struggling at times to know where to go with the football if his first option wasn’t open. That scenario usually resulted in him getting out of the pocket and trying to make something happen with his legs, which is not what Washington wants as his default setting this season.
"We’ve got some new weapons to play with this year, but we just have to make sure when we call a play, everybody knows it could come to them," Gruden said after Tuesday’s three-hour workout. "We have to make sure we don’t get so locked on to one guy. If he’s covered, we’ve got to know where our progression is and that’s what we’re working toward."
But that work is very much still in progress, and this week’s reality check on the practice field against the Patriots showed how far Washington’s renovated passing game must still come before it’s a cohesive and well-executed attack.
"We’re not there yet, not even close," Gruden said. "This is a different style defense we played this week, with a lot of man to man, bumping, grabbing and stuff. There were a lot of guys coming back with their jerseys off their pads. There were some instances [Tuesday] where Robert had no choice but to get out of the pocket, because his primary guy was on the ground. But that’s good. It’s good to have things break down and see how he handles it.
"The big thing I need to look at is, 'Where’s the ball? Is he holding the ball down low? Is it secure? Is it up high? Is he making good decisions with it?' Robert’s in the first year of this offense, and there’ll be some growing pains."
The Redskins’ progress on that front will not be helped by Garcon missing both Tuesday and Wednesday’s practices against the Patriots, as well as Thursday night’s game, due to some lingering hamstring and leg issues. He and Griffin have more chemistry based on their two seasons spent together, but not in the controlled passing game Gruden brought from Cincinnati, where he was head coach Marvin Lewis’s offensive coordinator the past three years.
"It’s a tendon in the back of his knee, along with his hammy," Gruden said of Garcon. "He’s been a little tender. The big thing is he keeps trying to go, saying, 'I’m good, I’m good.' He’s such a competitor he wants out there. Most guys say 'I can’t practice,' but this guy wants to play, so we tell him, 'No, you can’t practice.' That’s the big difference with him. So we’re going to make sure he rests, and we’ll see how he is on Saturday after we’re off on Friday."
Not only will Garcon be missing in the lineup Thursday night, Griffin might also be without Jackson. The seventh-year veteran slightly twisted his ankle after being cleated during a Wednesday morning walk-through. His status for Thursday night is still to be determined, Gruden said. Without Garcon and Jackson, Griffin would have Roberts, Reed, Moss and Grant as his top receiving options for whatever limited amount of playing time the first team will receive against the Patriots. Reed was the only Washington pass-catcher who consistently stood out this week against New England, and after a strong rookie season of 45 catches for 499 yards (finishing second on the team behind Garcon in both categories) and three touchdowns, some are predicting a breakthrough season for the 2013 third-round pick out of Florida.
"On paper, it definitely shows we have a lot of talent, but you have to go out there and actually put plays together, and we still have a lot to get better at," Garcon said Tuesday afternoon. "We definitely have more playmakers to challenge a defense, a lot more weapons. But you can have a lot of options and still not do well. You never know what’s going to happen until you get out there and start playing games."
The games will tell the story, but Griffin acknowledges that his chemistry with his new receivers and the cohesion of the offense is coming along incrementally.
"When you have as many new additions as we do, it’s going to take some time, but I think we are in a good place," Griffin said. "We’re not behind, we’re not ahead, we’re right in a good spot right now for training camp. I think [the connection with my receivers] is further along than people would have expected at this point, with Dre’ [Roberts] and DeSean and then Ryan Grant. And you’ve got Santana moving around a lot, and [running back Alfred Morris] is moving around a lot, so everybody’s having to play a little bit different role."
The role changes start, of course, with Griffin. The Redskins intend to use some read-option plays in their offense to take advantage of their third-year quarterback’s mobility and athleticism, enough to keep a defense honest, but Griffin’s new directive is to rely on his legs far less than he did under Mike and Kyle Shanahan’s offense during his first two NFL seasons. Gruden has made Griffin’s development in the pocket his top priority this year.
"We want him to stay in the pocket this year," Roberts said. "You know he’s going to run around a little bit, that’s his thing. But we want him to stay in the pocket and throw us the ball. You can see he’s still fighting it a little bit, because with his athletic ability his being able to run adds that little bit extra to our offense. But as receivers, we want him to stay in the pocket and get it to us."
Garcon largely echoed Roberts’ thoughts on keeping Griffin in the pocket, but allowed that "when guys feel things they have to make a move sometimes and you can’t change them. He’s going to do what his instincts tell him to do when the bullets are flying. But you want to keep him in the pocket and protect him."
Jackson, the Redskins’ new deep threat, doesn’t sound as convinced that Griffin’s style of game can or should be changed. Maybe because he knows the combination of his speed and Griffin’s mobility and improvisational skills could lead to some long gains and fireworks in 2014.
"Honestly I think you’ve got to let RG3 be who he is and do what he’s been doing," Jackson said. "I’m not a quarterback or an offensive coordinator, but so far I think he’s been very efficient, he’s making the right reads and making the right throws. He’s controlling our offense. It could be a beautiful thing, but let’s see how the season plays out."
Starting with Thursday’s preseason opener against New England, Washington’s new receiving weapons and new approach to its RG3-led passing game will be on display. The initial reviews will follow shortly. When the real results start to arrive is a tougher question altogether.