LANDOVER, Md. -- The Washington Redskins' third game of the season was a 38-31 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in which very few things went well in general and the defense looked as though it was playing with only nine guys half the time. It ended with coach Mike Shanahan furious at the officials for not knowing the rules and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that lengthened their shot at a game-tying touchdown by 15 impossible yards. It was not a good day for the Redskins, or for Shanahan, but he made it clear in his postgame news conference that he couldn't have been happier with the effort he got from rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III.
The question, though, that I asked Shanahan as he walked back to his office was whether he fears he might be asking too much of the young man. The size to which his eyes grew provided the answer.
"There's only five guys," Shanahan said, talking about quarterbacks in the past decade who've posted winning records in their first NFL seasons. "And four of them, their teams finished in the top 10 in defense and three of them finished in the top five in rushing."
The message, as it has been since the Redskins drafted Griffin, is that the success of his first season will come down to the quality of the group the Redskins are able to put around him. After three games, the returns on that don't look too encouraging. The only reason the Redskins were in Sunday's game late was the grit, toughness and playmaking of their rookie quarterback. And unless some things change very soon, it looks as though it's going to be this way all year.
"As a team, we know we'll always have a chance if we can keep the game close, because you see the things he can do," Redskins linebacker London Fletcher said. "But we don't want it to always be like that."
What it was like Sunday was this: The defense, down four starters due to injuries and suspensions, couldn't cover anybody all day and couldn't stop the Bengals from scoring after the Redskins had come back to tie the game in the second half. The offense, without left tackle Trent Williams after a first-quarter knee injury wiped out his day, couldn't get on track until they started tricking the Bengals with Brandon Banks option plays in the third quarter. Griffin took hit after hit, including five sacks, and kept getting up because he knew there was no other choice.
"It's football, so I got hit a lot," Griffin said with a shrug when it was over. "One is too many, to be honest. I'm not trying to be funny. When you're a mobile quarterback, teams are going to come after you even more. A lot of teams believe, if you hit the quarterback enough, he's going to stop coming after you. I just want everybody to know that's never going to happen with me."
Tough talk, and you get the sense that Griffin thinks he's got to act tough in the face of two straight losses, the injuries piling up around him and the shots he's taking from opposing defenses. But he denies that he's being anything but honest.
"It's not a show," he said. "In college we had a saying: 'Tough guys have to be tough guys. You can't talk tough and play soft.'"
Show or not, it has to be Griffin's mantra for the rest of this season. Those five guys about whom Shanahan spoke were Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Mark Sanchez and Andy Dalton. Each took his team to the playoffs as a rookie quarterback, but each had lots of help. Roethlisberger's 2004 Steelers ranked first in the league in defense and second in rush offense. Flacco's 2008 Ravens were second and fourth in the same categories. Sanchez's 2009 Jets were first in both. It is not realistic to ask your rookie quarterback to carry you and also expect a winning record in his rookie season. The NFL is too hard. Even Eli Manning, who seems to carry the Giants in the fourth quarter every week now, couldn't do it in his younger days.
"He's going to do what he can do to win, especially when you're down 14 points and it's late, and that's great to see," Shanahan said. "But it's not an ideal situation for a young guy."
It's entirely possible that the best the Redskins can hope for in Griffin's rookie season is that he comes out of it a) in one piece, and b) tougher and better educated about how to succeed in the NFL than he was when the season began. They're fortunate in that he already appears pretty wise about what he's up against, and that he seems tough enough to take his rookie licks as things fall apart around him. He said that there was a point late in the game where Bengals defensive lineman Michael Johnson knocked him down and offered him a hand, saying, "Get up."
"I think you earn players' respect," Griffin said, "when you don't say anything and just get up from those hits."
It appears, given the state of his offensive line, that Griffin is going to keep getting opportunities to do just that. It appears, given the state of his defense, that he's going to keep getting chances to bring the Redskins back late in games. That's all going to make for a very exciting rookie season, but it's not a recipe for a very successful one. If the Redskins are going to contend this year, Griffin's going to need some help. And right now, it does not appear as though he has enough.