CHICAGO — If you choose to salvage something from the Redskins’ rough Saturday night — and please do not misconstrue the final score; the Bears dominated when the starters played — consider the following working theory on QB Robert Griffin III.
On a night when two defensive starters, OLB Brian Orakpo (shoulder) and FS Brandon Meriweather (knee), left the game with injuries, it might have behooved head coach Mike Shanahan to remove Griffin from the game before things got really ugly.
After all, at this point of the game — early in the second quarter — the Bears led 14-0, nothing was going right for the Redskins offensively and Griffin had been under constant siege. He had been pressured and harassed by the Bears’ front and had completed a mere two passes for 24 yards, unable to breathe easily at any point. Part of it was Griffin, who left the pocket too early (could you blame him?) a few times, but this was a systematic failure across the board.
Even after the Bears’ best pass rushers left the game and fellow Redskins rookie QB Kirk Cousins (18-of-23 passing, 264 yards, three TDs) led a furious comeback — it fell short as the Bears won, 33-31, on a Robbie Gould 57-yard field goal in the final minute — it was hard not to think about how Griffin and Co. failed to get much going in a half’s worth of action.
“I think you learn the more you play,” said Griffin, who completed 5-of-8 passes for 49 yards, rushed three times for 17 yards and was sacked three times, losing his lone fumble after one sack. “Against Buffalo, I didn’t play very much. Today, against the Bears, I played a lot.
“We didn’t play bad. We didn’t play good. It was somewhere in between, and it’s something we can definitely learn from on film.”
Shanahan kept the kid in the game and clearly wanted to give him one of those learning experiences. Perhaps it was by design to let him play the entire first half. Plans change, though, when coaches see franchise rookie quarterbacks running for their lives. Sometimes learning through adversity, especially when all signs point to Griffin being mature enough to handle a tough night or two, is the best thing in the long run.
The gamble worked — at least as well as you could have expected the way this night started. The coach was rewarded with the only redeeming offensive drive of the night by the first team as Griffin led it on a nine-play, 70-yard scoring drive, with the Redskins managing a short field goal on an otherwise miserable night. Shanahan wouldn’t say what his aim was with the rookie QB but did manage to find some positives in a fairly forgettable performance by the first-team offense.
“I think he’s going to get better and better,” Shanahan said. “I think two of those sacks were screens, and we just have to learn to throw those at the guy’s feet. I mean, he can look to see if he can make a play. But I think that will become more natural to him over time, as he learns to just throw it away.”
WR Pierre Garcon, who had two catches for just 13 yards, said the Redskins expect to score — and they expect to work out all their problems, despite all the injuries up front.
“You have to have guys ready to step up, make plays and do their part,” Garcon said. “It’s going to happen. You always want to have good protection. But the young guys are going to have to step up.
“Robert handled it very well. Hopefully we get better protection. But we’ll get better at it all around.”
Everyone said Griffin was going to have days like this behind a line like this. His blocking up front struggled to maintain a clean pocket, and Griffin looked flustered with the constant barrage of rushers in his facemask. The Redskins opened up in run-heavy formations with “13” personnel (one back, three tight ends) and slammed it to young, powerful RBs Alfred Morris and Evan Royster repeatedly behind their most trusted blocker, OLT Trent Williams (even he had a subpar night).
“Overall, we have to be more cohesive than we were,” Shanahan said. “You can’t get five first downs in a half and say that you’re really pleased.
When the Redskins threw the ball, they did it with the purpose of helping their rookie QB. There was a steady diet of moving pockets, bootlegs and rollouts designed to get Griffin in space and minimize the rush. Even that had minimal success. It was not the line’s best performance, but Williams said Griffin handled it well.
“He came in as a running quarterback, so he is no stranger to taking hits,” Williams said. “When he takes off with the ball, everybody holds their breath, but to him, he thinks he’s fine.”
Griffin had two three-and-out series (including a lost fumble) in his preseason opener last week against the Bills before putting together one strong drive, and he was flushed from the pocket twice on his first drive in Chicago and didn’t complete a pass. The No. 2 pick in the draft flashed his obvious and considerable skills — a hot arm, quick reactions and fast feet — in the game and would come back to hit Santana Moss on a post pattern for 16 yards on 3rd-and-3, easily his best throw of the night.
“I really liked the way he handled himself,” Shanahan said. “He was very poised. He was cool, calm and collected. He gets the guys going. He never seems to lose his composure. That’s the sign of a good quarterback.”
But Griffin and the Redskins also gave us a look of the challenges the offense will face against defenses that can rush the passer and collapse the pocket, with or without the blitz. The drive stalled when Griffin threw behind TE Niles Paul on a wide-open bootleg on 3rd-and-2. The catch probably should have been made, and Paul fell on his sword for his QB, but Griffin’s throw was far from perfect, too.
“If I can flip my whole body around, I should be able to catch it,” Paul said, in what was otherwise a pretty decent night for him as he continues to make the transition from receiver. “In every situation, I have to make sure to secure the catch, get upfield and get the first down. I did not do that. It’s on me there.”
The nightmare had just begun. On his first play back on the field, the Bears blitzed Griffin (after rushing four most of the night) and though he evaded Major Wright, Griffin stumbled and was hit trying to get rid of the ball. The ball came loose on the Israel Idonije sack and Julius Peppers recovered, putting the Bears in prime position at the Redskins’ 8-yard line. Michael Bush scored two plays later to make it 14-0, Chicago.
“I should have tried to secure the ball in that situation, but once I was trying to throw the ball, if you get hit while you’re throwing, it’s kind of hard to have ball security,” Griffin said. “So it’s just something I have to learn from and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
"Sometimes you have to know when not to try to make a play.”
Williams said that the protection was not as bad as it might have looked and that there were other issues, as well. “We had open receivers downfield,” Williams said. But the number of free rushers honing in on Griffin outnumbered them.
“We got a lot of pressure on them, which was our goal,” said Bears MLB Nick Roach, who started in place of the injured Brian Urlacher. “We were able to get upfield on some of those runs and we were able to get the ball out.”
And it got worse. On the second play of the fourth possession, the final snap of the first quarter, Griffin had no one open to throw to and was sandwiched by Idonije and Matt Toeaina for an eight-yard sack. The Redskins ended the quarter with three sacks allowed and two passing yards.
On the next play — 3rd-and-18 — the Redskins were forced to use a six-man protection. Once more, no one was open, Griffin had to check down short of the first-down marker, and the Redskins still were flagged for offensive holding by ORT Tyler Polumbus, which was declined. That one play might have summed up their offensive problems on this fruitful night. Still, the kid wanted more work. Griffin said the starters all did.
"Everybody on the ones wanted to go back in in the second half,” he said. Instead, Cousins stole the show once the backups entered, and Griffin said he learned a lot from watching those three TD drives. Griffin’s final stats didn’t tell anything close to the whole story. He struggled. So did the rest of the first team. Better to figure these things out now, Garcon said.
“No, it’s not (a step back); it’s a learning process,” Garcon said. “It’s preseason. You learn and see where your mistakes are at, where you can get better and take it from there. And learn.”
Saturday night, Griffin might have taken the biggest lesson of all.