SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The problem isn’t that Robert Griffin III played so poorly, certainly not like he did a week ago against Tampa Bay. The typical firestorm ensued in the week that followed: Griffin criticized by his coach, then dialing back his openness in interviews, leading to the usual Sunday morning pregame chatter on his game.
No, the problem is that Griffin wasn’t able to flip the narrative, or to reverse the momentum of his situation. Perhaps the best thing you could say about his game Sunday in a 17-13 loss to the San Francisco 49ers is that he wasn’t awful, that it was an improvement over one of the worst showings of his young career.
It’s understandable to a degree. The Redskins were playing a rookie left tackle in Morgan Moses, who was not ready for a matchup against an elite rusher such as Aldon Smith. They were without pass-catching tight end Jordan Reed and Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams. They were facing one of the NFL’s best defenses.
And Griffin, who completed 11 of 19 passes for 105 yards, was sacked five times -- other players were affected by the Niners' pressure. Many times in the past those sacks mostly were the byproduct of a quarterback holding the ball too long. That wasn’t always the case Sunday as the pass game failed for a variety of reasons. There was one time when Griffin took a five-step drop then moved up two steps in the pocket and was sacked. Another time he took a deep drop, then tried to escape by dropping more -- and Smith pounced.
In this case, it’s about trust. And Jay Gruden does not always trust where Griffin’s game is at, based at least on his play calls. The Redskins faced a third-and-13 from their own 40-yard line in the first quarter. It’s a tough conversion, but certainly not impossible. But Gruden called for a quarterback draw, a conservative play call and, it seems, one designed to prevent a turnover and pin the Niners deep with a punt.
At the end of the first half, Gruden opted not to call a timeout after San Francisco ran a play that left the Niners with a fourth-and-2 and around 40 seconds left in the half. If Gruden had called a timeout, it’s likely the Niners would have punted from the Redskins’ 48. Instead, the Niners ran the clock down, gained 25 yards on fourth-and-2 and kicked a field goal.
Why no timeout? The Minnesota game, when Griffin threw an interception right before halftime, leading to seven points.
“The game was tied and I didn’t want to take any risks going into halftime,” Gruden said, “backed up like the Minnesota game.”
Maybe that’s as much a function of the entire offense. And it most assuredly was a coaching mistake -- the Redskins could have just taken a knee after all. But the overriding point is that, once more, it looked like Gruden didn’t trust his quarterback.
Sometimes you do that with a young quarterback, of course. But Griffin has now started 33 games; he’s developing, yes, and that’s an issue in many areas, but that trust level needs to be higher nonetheless.
It’s unfortunate to see what Griffin is enduring -- nobody energized the town more than he did during his rookie season. He was exciting; he was engaging. The future seemed so bright for him and the organization. I remember one front-office member saying how Griffin was going to get a lot of guys paid. Such was the promise. Such is the fall.
The organization needs to see more development in the passing game, and obviously Griffin plays a huge role in that area. Sometimes it’s an adjustment with his reads; other times it’s subtle movements. It’s not as if Colin Kaepernick was without his own issues. He looked flustered if his first read was unavailable.
The Redskins do have to give Griffin more help, and it’s tough for a passing game to flourish when 12 of its 13 third downs are 5 yards or more, with eight for at least 8 yards. A young passer, protected by a rookie left tackle, is being put in a bad spot. Which leaves an offense that has plenty of weapons in a bad spot, too.
“We have to work on our pass protection and work on plays that are conducive to getting the ball out quicker to come up with a better plan,” Gruden said. “[Griffin] made strides, but there’s a lot of other things that go into the passing game. We had field position and we didn’t want to take a lot of risk down the field, but this wasn’t a good day in the passing game.”
Griffin exits with the same questions about his game. At some point, those questions will be on Gruden: Can he be the guy to turn Griffin’s game around? So far, that answer is no.