RICHMOND — Robert Griffin III held onto the football . . . and scrambled right . . . and came back left . . . then scrambled right again . . . then tried to squeeze the ball in to tight end Jordan Reed, but the pass was knocked away by the Patriots’ defense.
This is Jay Gruden’s challenge. As the Redskins’ new coach, he needs to drill it in Griffin’s head that sometimes it’s OK to throw the ball out of bounds.
“He just has a stubbornness to him sometimes in practice,” Gruden said. “He doesn’t like to throw the ball away.”
Griffin, entering his third season, has never had a problem outrunning the competition, even at the NFL level. He tantalized Redskins fans with 815 rushing yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie, and his ability to keep plays alive and improvise when a play breaks down is what makes him so special.
But Griffin also needs to realize his body can’t keep taking punishment if he wants to survive in the NFL. Already, he’s had an ACL tear that clipped his wings during the 2013 season. Gruden doesn’t want to take the running element away from Griffin, but wants him to be smarter about how many hits he takes, too. Sometimes, the best play really is just throwing the ball away.
“I can’t put handcuffs on a quarterback. He’s got to play the game the way he plays it,” Gruden told the Globe. “But we’ve got to make sure he understands situational football, understands it’s OK to throw the ball away, to protect the ball at all costs, but be yourself and make some plays.”
The good news is that so far, Griffin looks like he’s shaken off the rust from last year’s ACL injury. He faced a lot of pressure to come back for Week 1 when Adidas and Gatorade made his comeback a commercial campaign. Griffin rushed for 489 yards and zero touchdowns, his completion percentage dropped by 5½ percent, and the Redskins mercifully pulled the plug after 13 games on their way to a disastrous 3-13 finish.
But Griffin hasn’t had to do any rehab this year, and athletes always come back stronger in their second year off ACL surgery.
“We’ve discussed that 1,000 times,” Griffin said of his knee. “I’m fine, I feel great. My teammates are excited that I’m able to go out there and be free.”
“It’s just a world of difference,” said former tight end Chris Cooley, now a local radio host. “The kid shouldn’t have played last year. You could see he wasn’t ready.”
Griffin had an odd response about his style of play after Tuesday’s practice. He said he will work on throwing the ball away in the preseason, but not the regular season.
“The time to throw it away is in the preseason. I understand that,” he said. “Sometimes if the play doesn’t present itself, I will try to extend the play and work on the scramble drill. In the regular season the scramble drill is a big part of what we do. Not every play will work out the way you plan it. In the preseason, I’ll definitely throw the ball away.”
For Griffin, it’s not necessarily about making the spectacular plays. Gruden just wants him to eliminate the bad ones.
“He’s so athletic that he thinks he can keep a lot of plays alive, and maybe he can,” Gruden said. “But I think there’s a point in time where he’s got to not make a bad play worse. That’s something we’re going to preach and eliminate the negative plays.”
Griffin certainly has motivation to keep plays alive — he has an impressive stable of weapons this year. Pierre Garcon is coming off a phenomenal year with 113 catches, 1,346 yards and five touchdowns. The Redskins signed Andre Roberts from the Cardinals, an intriguing slot receiver with 11 touchdowns in four years. Reed is an emerging threat and could be the team’s breakout star.
And DeSean Jackson fell in the team’s lap like an early Christmas gift in April after the Eagles cut him for not fitting in with Chip Kelly’s program.
Reed is Griffin’s only target taller than 6 feet, but the team has speed and athleticism to burn. And Griffin’s targets want him to stay in the pocket and throw them the football.
“When you have a team full of weapons, we’re all going to eat, and we’re all going to have fun doing it,” Roberts said. “He’s still fighting it, his athletic ability. We want him to run, that adds a little bit extra to him, but as a receiver we want him to stay in the pocket and throw us the ball.”
It’s a fine line to walk for Gruden — he needs Griffin to use his athleticism to cause havoc for the defense, but he needs his star to stay healthy. And the NFL, ultimately, is a passing league. The Redskins have the horses to get back to the playoffs, but only if Griffin develops into a mostly-pocket quarterback.
“He’s an entertainer, and he’s out there to entertain,” Gruden said. “But he’s also got us riding on his back when he makes those decisions that will make us cringe. So we just have to have some growing pains a little bit with him, but ultimately he’ll win a lot of games for us.”Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.