If you thought you were excited about Robert Griffin III, you're starting to realize that was nothing compared to the way Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan felt about him. In Griffin, for whom he traded three first-round picks and a second-round pick, Shanahan saw a quarterback who opened up nearly limitless offensive possibilities. And in the first three games of the season, Shanahan has tried quite a number of those possibilities with great success.
Griffin is, right now, the 16th-leading rusher in the NFL. His 209 yards on the ground put him ahead of star running backs such as Darren McFadden and Michael Turner and 128 yards ahead of the next two quarterbacks on the list -- Michael Vick and Cam Newton. Griffin is an excellent runner, with speed and vision, and it would be unwise not to take advantage of his talents in this department.
Of course, Griffin is also the No. 6-rated passer in the league with a mark of 103.5 that's higher than those of Tom Brady, Eli Manning, Tony Romo and Aaron Rodgers. He's only 18th in passing yards, in large part due to the absence of top wide receiver Pierre Garcon since the first half of the first game of the season, but he's fourth in yards per attempt, so when he does throw it, he's productive.
All of this adds up to the somewhat surprising fact that the Redskins have scored more points (99) through three weeks than any other team in the league, and all of that is, yes, very exciting. But what's important for Shanahan is not to get carried away with the excitement and expose Griffin to too much unnecessary risk. As thrilling as it must be to have what he has at quarterback, Shanahan must remember that his Redskins team is one that isn't all the way there yet. Deficiencies remain, especially on defense and on the offensive line, and unless the Redskins account for them by resisting the temptation to devise game plans as though anything's possible, Griffin could find himself exposed to enough injury risk to threaten not only his rookie season but his long-term health.
The Washington Times reports that Griffin underwent (and passed) a concussion test at one point in Sunday's game against the Bengals -- a game in which the Times says he was knocked to the ground 28 times. According to Pro Football Focus, Griffin is facing pressure on 37 percent of his drop-backs, which is the ninth-highest figure in the league. But he also has eight more carries than any other quarterback in the league and is exposing himself to hits on every one.
Shanahan defended the designed runs after Sunday's game, saying Griffin had been hit on just four of 20 carries in the first two weeks.
"Even though it's a designed run, he doesn't always get contacted," Shanahan said. "But it does present a big problem to the defense. Now, if he had those designed runs and he was getting hit quite a bit, obviously you couldn't do that. But I think designed runs really keep a defense off-balance."
Of course they do, and that's why it's so tempting to keep using them. Running the triple option with Alfred Morris lined up at fullback and Brandon Banks at halfback is going to keep defenses off-balance, too. It's going to confuse the heck out of them. And that's going to result in more yards and more points for the Redskins. Every coach in the NFL loves feeling as though he's outsmarted and outschemed the guy in the headset on the other sideline, and Griffin's ability to understand and operate such a thrilling array of offensive possibilities has to have Shanahan up all night with excitement about what they can accomplish together.
But it's important that Shanahan keep this in perspective. It's important, as he draws up more new, fun ways to use his new quarterback, that he keep in the back of his mind the fact that he also has a torn-up defense that's going to give up more points most weeks than whatever offense he dreams up is able to score. He has to remember that Griffin is still taking snaps behind an offensive line that isn't all it could be -- that his star left tackle is banged-up and his right tackle is a career backup who's trying very hard but in general isn't going to be able to keep the league's best pass-rushers from getting their shots at the most important player the franchise has.
In the end, as he continues to draw up game plans for Griffin and the offense for the rest of the season, Shanahan must always keep in mind the importance of Griffin to the future of the Redskins. Griffin doesn't want to be reined in. He wants to stand there after the game and talk about how tough he is and how opposing defenses determined to hit him over and over again aren't going to deter him. Even that's fun about this guy -- he's got determination and toughness to go along with all of the exciting skills. It would be easy and understandable to get caught up and just run with it, throwing the kitchen sink at him and trying every new offensive wrinkle a coach could fit into 16 games.
But Shanahan's job is to not get caught up. It's to keep the big picture in mind. It's to incorporate into some of these game plans the safety of Griffin as a priority. In doing so, he may limit what his enthralling young quarterback can accomplish in his first season. But he may also ensure that the young man is still upright and able to accomplish far more in the seasons to come.