ST. LOUIS -- The Washington Redskins need to be careful. If you watched their game against the Rams on Sunday afternoon, that much was abundantly clear. It wasn't merely the sight of St. Louis defenders relentlessly pounding rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III that should've given Redskins coaches pause in their 31-28 loss. It's also the fact the Rams apparently had been planning such a battering for RG3 all week long.
Nobody should be surprised that St. Louis wanted to hit Griffin as much as possible on Sunday. This is the way football is played. But when Griffin carries as much as he did against St. Louis -- he ran for 82 yards on a variety of read options and improvised scrambles -- it looks pretty perilous from this perspective. When he's nailed, it seems as if the Redskins are playing with serious fire.
As athletic as the 6-foot-2, 217-pound Griffin is, he's not the biggest quarterback in the NFL. He's not going to successfully absorb the same abuse that a giant such as Carolina's Cam Newton might shake off easily. If anything, Griffin's lanky frame makes him a taller version of Philadelphia's Michael Vick. Griffin can match Vick in speed and instincts. What he can't do is subject himself to the same kind of punishment that has plagued Vick throughout his own NFL career.
Vick has missed three games due to injury in each of the past two seasons. He also hurt his ribs in a preseason game against New England in August. The last thing the Redskins want is to see their blossoming star quarterback playing through pain on a weekly basis. Vick has managed to live with the constant punishment. RG3 may have to face more days like he had on Sunday.
"I'm not saying he's not capable of it, but it's hard to tuck and run as a quarterback over 16 games in this league," said Rams defensive end Chris Long. "The more you do it, the more those hits add up. That's what we were trying to do today. We wanted him to feel it."
The Redskins' major challenge may be protecting Griffin from himself. Sunday's game between St. Louis and Washington was exactly what you'd expect from two teams trying to establish their respective identities. The Redskins came in with the NFL's hottest young quarterback, a player capable of redefining the position. The Rams came in with a young squad eager to display the ferocity and attitude that their head coach, Jeff Fisher, always preaches.
There were plenty of scuffles after the whistle. There was so much trash talk that it felt like a schoolyard gang fight. Most quarterbacks are smart enough not to engage in the type of bluster that builds in a game like this. Griffin instead frequently found himself face to face with Rams defenders in a contest that the Redskins felt got out of control.
As Washington head coach Mike Shanahan said, "Everybody is going to be physical in the NFL, but I thought the physical [play] went to a different level today. That wasn't a typical NFL game."
There's no way to know how much Griffin's emotions rose in the heat of those moments. What was apparent was how badly he wanted to take this game over at key junctures. This wasn't the same quarterback who was coolly dissecting the New Orleans Saints in the Redskins' season-opening win. This was Griffin on a mission to not look like the weaker man in a test of wills.
This isn't to say Griffin didn't make great plays with his arm, because he certainly did that. His 68-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Leonard Hankerson in the second quarter was as majestic as it gets. It's just that too often he was called upon to run and take vicious hits from the Rams' defense. Even when he dropped back to pass, he spent way too much time trying to extend plays with his legs.
This is the rub all athletic quarterbacks face. They have to find the proper balance between control and conviction. They have to sense when it's best to stick with what they've been taught and when to rely on what they instinctively can do. The joy of watching a star such as Newton do this is knowing he can afford to make mistakes in judgment and not pay so dearly with his body. If someone as slender as Griffin makes a similar error, the Redskins' hopes might be decided by the competence of their medical staff.
"When you look at somebody like Cam [Newton], he's so big that he probably scares people," said Redskins wide receiver Santana Moss. "But you definitely want to protect your quarterback. You'd like to see [Griffin] slide when he has to get down or throw the ball away at times. But those are things he'll learn in time."
The good thing about Griffin is that he's smart enough to learn quickly. He's not like Vick, who seemed hell-bent on using his speed to take him as far as it could in his early years in Atlanta. He's also not like former Eagles Pro Bowl quarterback Donovan McNabb, who wasn't as polished a passer as Griffin is at this stage of his career. Griffin has been trying to make plays from the pocket since becoming a star at Baylor. He understands it's best to define himself as a thrower who can run.
The problem is that Griffin won't dash away from every defender at this level and the ones who catch him will make him pay. The effects on Griffin in this contest seemed to show as early as the second quarter. One play after taking a shot from linebacker James Laurinaitis and safety Craig Dahl on a 15-yard run, he was pressured into lobbing an off-balance throw that cornerback Cortland Finnegan intercepted. Griffin denied that the previous hit impacted his errant pass. It was difficult to think otherwise.
It's also difficult to believe the Rams didn't just provide the rest of the NFL with a blueprint for defending Griffin. They didn't stop him, because he still compiled 288 total yards and accounted for three touchdowns (two rushing). They also didn't have to completely stifle the first-year quarterback. The St. Louis defense merely had to make Griffin think twice about what might happen once he left the pocket.
More teams are surely going to test Griffin in the same way.
"You have to be prepared for it," he said. "They dared us to run today and we did that. If teams want to get physical with us -- or me -- bring it on."
That sounds like tough talk today. In the future, Griffin will learn it's a foolish way to operate.