Robert Griffin III, and everyone else it seems, knows what he must do Monday night. Before trouble arrives, hit the ground. Or get out of bounds. Or throw the ball away. It’s the same conversation that was had before his knee injury late last season; the volume, though, has increased. A lot.
Griffin will not abandon the run, whether a designed call or a scramble. It’s too much a part of his game and to ask him to just become a pocket passer is ignoring reality: Griffin makes huge plays with his legs, whether by running for a 76-yard touchdown (as he did against Minnesota last season) or by extending a fourth-down play by nearly 10 seconds and eventually picking up a first down (as he did against the Giants).
Still, the great debate has been how to keep Griffin safe. He can help himself by trusting more of what he sees downfield. He can also keep the ball alive when he does scramble, pump-faking as he approaches the line or even crosses it, something other mobile quarterbacks such as Ben Roethlisberger do well. It can cause enough hesitation to either create an opening or allow him to slide without still getting hit.
"He can’t run as much," running back Alfred Morris said. "He has to be a smarter runner. A lot of times on options I’m like, 'Give me the ball.' Not because I want the stats, but give me the ball to let me take the hit. I can take this hit. I’m built for this. So just not as many hits and being smarter sliding instead of making something big happen."
Morris brought up a good point, too: Griffin can trust his weapons. With a highly productive back in Morris and healthy receiving targets in Fred Davis, Pierre Garcon and even third-down back Roy Helu, Griffin does not need to go it alone.
"No one person will win this game," Morris said. "It’s a team sport. You don’t have to make the big play every play. You won’t hit a home run every play. I know he’ll use that sideline a lot more and I know he’ll slide a lot more.
"If he tries to hit a home run every time out there, you’re living in la-la land. That’s unrealistic so you have to nickel and dime, nickel and dime and know that you have to be patient and that big plays are going to come."
Michael Vick understands the dilemma Griffin faces, trying to remain dangerous while running less. Vick has run the ball 791 times in his career, with two seasons of at least 120 carries, the same number Griffin had a year ago.
"Well, it's one of Robert’s strengths," Vick said. "It’s something that he does well and it's made him the type of quarterback that he is today -- and a successful one and a good one. But what I’ve learned is that you have to be cautious because these guys in this league they hit so hard and we only weigh about 210 pounds, 215 pounds and these guys taking all types of angles on us and we don’t even see them sometimes. So it's important for us to protect ourselves and be conscious of where we are on the field and most importantly understand how much we mean to our football team."
Vick's career has been marked by big plays and big hits, leading to concussions or other injuries. He has played in all 16 games in a season once in his career and hasn’t topped 13 in the past three. Vick said he's only now running smarter.
"It happens in time. It happens over time, and I can honestly tell you right now I didn’t learn it until this year," Vick said. "This preseason was the most I’ve gotten down and slid and ran with a sense of getting down and not trying to score all the time. I think once you tell yourself that's what you’re going to do, then you kind of ingrain it in your mind."
It's not as if Griffin ran with abandon last season. He got hurt trying to extend plays against Atlanta (a concussion on a third-down play in the red zone); and Baltimore (a second-and-19 scramble late in the game trailing by eight); and Seattle (rolling to his right in the red zone; he wasn’t hit). And he was better at running out of bounds after his Week 5 concussion.
Still, he said he'll have it down Monday night.
"I mean, you guys have been talking to me about it for eight months. I think it’s ingrained in my head now. I'll be getting down on Monday night," Griffin said.
Two other mobile quarterbacks in recent decades, Steve Young and John Elway, ran much less than Griffin. The most Elway ever ran was 66 times in 1987, his fourth full season as the starter. In 1997, he ran the ball 50 times. Young ran it more often (4.2 times per game) and in his last full season as the starter he ran the ball 70 times, the second-highest total of his career.
"If they can stay healthy, they can have dominant careers," ESPN "Monday Night Football" analyst Jon Gruden said of the read-option quarterbacks. "Now, the style in which they play concerns me because I'm not accustomed to seeing quarterbacks take the kind of hits and as many hits as these men take.
"I'm concerned with any quarterback that runs the ball and plays the position recklessly because as far as I know, the quarterback is the only guy that can't play on Sunday if he has a sore passing shoulder. That's my only concern. I love watching them play. I love the style of offense that they play. The combination of drop‑back passing and option football is just downright nasty to a defense to defend, but can they sustain that style of play deep into their careers and eventually become $100 million quarterbacks as well?"
The Redskins say they don’t have a number on how many times Griffin should run. It’s hard to do something like that anyway. But Griffin's size -- he’s listed as 6-foot-2, 217 pounds -- means that questions about durability will be in play, whether he's a pocket passer or scrambler. The fewer hits he takes, the better. They won't abandon the zone-read -- it provides big plays, both in the run and pass game, and they have a strong belief it protects him better.
"It is what it is, whatever that number ends up being," Griffin said. "I just want to make sure I go out there and play tough, play hard, play fearless, and at the same time, play smart."