This is an article from the Sept. 7, 2015 issue
Three seasons after winning Offensive Rookie of the Year, Robert Griffin III wears the label of damaged goods. He's had one reconstructive knee surgery (right), one dislocated ankle (left) and at least two concussions (including one that sidelined him in the preseason, allowing backup Kirk Cousins to muddy the Redskins' QB situation), and, most troubling, he's been benched by two coaches. The team, however, appears committed to salvaging their onetime prize.
In April, Washington picked up the fifth-year option on Griffin's contract, guaranteeing him $16.1 million in 2016, healthy or not. To maximize returns on the '12 No. 2 pick for which the team gave up three first-rounders and a second-rounder, the Redskins are asking Griffin to stop winning games with his legs—as he did so spectacularly as a rookie, scrambling for 815 rushing yards while leading Washington to an NFC East title—and rely more on his arm and his mind.
"Recapturing the magic of 2012" is a popular but unrealistic story line in Washington—and one that, according to recent reports, some coaches may have already moved on from. When the Redskins drafted Griffin, then-coach Mike Shanahan and his son, coordinator Kyle Shanahan, directed one of the most drastic scheme adjustments built around one player's talent that the league has ever seen. But that style was not sustainable, and Griffin, battered by injuries, became reluctant to use his legs. Flaws in his mechanics and decision-making became more obvious, and Washington has since then been scrambling to adapt. "He's 25 and he's already been through so much," says second-year coach Jay Gruden. "We just need him to play quarterback for us and forget all the outside stuff."
This off-season Washington (controlled by new general manager Scot McCloughan) hired venerable assistant Matt Cavanaugh as a quarterbacks coach, which the team did not have last season. Cavanaugh can focus on Griffin's mechanics while Gruden spreads his attention across the rest of the roster. "We have to help keep the weight of the world off of Robert's shoulders," says Gruden, looking to reverse trajectory for a team that has won just seven games over the last two seasons.
Gruden plans on incorporating a heavy dose of play-action and screens while emphasizing patience and decision-making in the pocket. This will help Griffin get the ball into the hands of DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garçon, Jordan Reed, Alfred Morris and the other talents that Washington has returning on offense.
On defense, McCloughan emphasized improving Washington's front seven, using free agency to add 354-pound-but-light-footed nosetackle Terrance (Pot Roast) Knighton from Denver and block-shedding defensive end Stephen Paea from Chicago. With new defensive coordinator Joe Barry installing a one-gap hybrid 3--4 scheme, Knighton and Paea will generate enough interior pressure to liberate outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan. Junior Galette was supposed to line up alongside Kerrigan, but he sustained a season-ending left Achilles tear in camp. The Redskins were banking on the troubled but talented linebacker (who recorded 22 sacks over the last two seasons before being released by the Saints) as a spark. He will be replaced by either second-round pick Preston Smith (Mississippi State) or second-year player Trent Murphy.
A more vigorous pass rush will be essential in front of a weak secondary. A year ago opposing quarterbacks had a 108.3 passer rating against Washington, and that was against a soft schedule that did not include Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. Promising second-year corner Bashaud Breeland sprained his MCL in a noncontact training camp drill and will miss four to six weeks. Defensive back DeAngelo Hall is coming off two operations on a torn Achilles heel, while strong safety Duke Ihenacho missed all but three games in 2014 with a broken bone in his left foot. The Redskins acquired veteran free safety Dashon Goldson in an April trade with the Buccaneers, but the two-time Pro Bowler, 31, has a propensity for surrendering big plays and is a short-term solution at best.
Still, it all comes back to Griffin, because in today's NFL it is nearly impossible to win without a steady quarterback. He may not be the Redskins' savior, as hoped, but he still has time to prove he won't be their demise.
SI'S PREDICTION: 3--13
ANDY BENOIT ON THE REDSKINS' OFFENSIVE RICHES
Look closely at Washington's offense and you'll see that it's just a quarterback away from greatness. Alfred Morris is one of the game's best zone runners, particularly on the perimeter, and the Redskins do a great job of maximizing his abilities with halfback tosses and sweeps. Out wide, DeSean Jackson (above) is lethal tracking the ball deep or running after the catch on shorter patterns; he led the league with 13 catches of 40 yards or more last season. (The next best, Green Bay's Jordy Nelson, had eight.) Opposite Jackson is Pierre Garçon, a superb possession target who thrives on slants and comebackers. Then there's Jordan Reed, who is athletically the smoothest tight end in football. If the 2013 third-rounder can stay healthy, he's great at creating mismatches. Up front vast improvements are expected with the additions of No. 5 draft pick Brandon Scherff (Iowa) at right tackle and venerated offensive line coach Bill Callahan. Then there's coach Jay Gruden, who is one of the league's best play designers. Gruden understands how to sync route combinations to outleverage coverages, especially zones. Gruden's test this year will be to help RG3 deliver the ball to all these talented targets.