ASHBURN, Va. – There is an honor in the pain. Football players talk about this; how they love the collision of helmets and pads, the thrill of the crash, the joy of taking a shoulder in the side and still getting up.
Robert Griffin III has always taken pride in absorbing a hit. Those first big ones he took in professional football would bring a smile and the same refrain.
"You didn't think I could take a hit did you?" he'd say.
Then he took one. He took a really good one. It knocked him from a game and sent him wobbling to the locker room. And it left a question that might take weeks to answer: How much should the Washington Redskins new quarterback be running?
It's a balance they struggle to find almost every day at Redskins Park where the tapes play in the coaches' offices. On one film they can see Griffin stumbling off the field with his first NFL concussion. On the other he is running left, curling around the Minnesota Vikings and sprinting 76 yards for a touchdown in which he was barely touched.
How do you mix that? How do weigh the dangers of a quarterback running into a season-ending injury with brilliance of outrunning an entire team? At what point does he get really hurt? How does he stay unblemished?
"The fans and my teammates don't want me to love the contact so I don't love contact," Griffin said at Redskins Park on Wednesday. "I'm a competitive guy and I don't mind getting hit but I am the quarterback of this team and I need to make sure I'm the guy not getting hit. It's not a pride thing; it's a matter of being smart."
Then he added:
"I'll still be aggressive."
This is all still an experiment by the Redskins (3-3), taking a college offense to the NFL and getting away with it. But with any experiment comes those moments of agony when things don't work. When the play goes awry and the quarterback of the future wobbles off to the locker room, wounded for the first time.
However, as the Redskins try to make the NFL fit Griffin's skills, the lessons come fast. Griffin's speed could take care of so many problems in college. He was faster than everyone. And it can still take him far in the NFL yet moments will come when he can't outrun a predicament, and he has to know that he can't take on two racing linebackers.
"He's strong and everything but he's got to realize he's the quarterback," receiver Joshua Morgan said on Wednesday.
Washington's coaches have been working with Griffin on this. A few days after a Week 3 home loss to Cincinnati, they showed a video to some players of two Bengals defenders converging on Griffin as he raced downfield. He threw the ball but still absorbed a pounding hit.
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The message of the video? Griffin has to get down. Dive to the turf, slide, jump out of bounds – anything to eliminate the chance of getting hurt. It took getting knocked from the game against the Atlanta Falcons two weeks later for Griffin to see he needed to do the wiser thing and throw himself to the turf rather than take a hit.
"He's a quick learner," Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said.
And since this is still an experiment in a league where coaches more often copy than innovate, the Redskins are continuing to find things out about the man they traded three first-round picks to get. How does he handle adversity? What does he do when he gets hurt? Will he listen? Will he adjust? So far he continues to please Shanahan. He leaves the impression that he will keep learning and growing, which is everything a coach wants to hear – especially one who is trying something as bold as this new offense, designed just for him.
"I have to [change] because I got told by everyone I have to make a conscious effort to take care of myself and to not be too aggressive in situations where I shouldn't be," said Griffin, who has already rushed for 379 yards this season. "I thought I did a good job of that against Minnesota. I got out of bounds numerous times, just trying to make sure I didn't leave the guys hanging."
The NFL has a way of crushing experiments. The Redskins have sailed through the first six weeks of the season without having to face another team from the NFC East. Division games change things. Division games carry their own intensity. They can be relentless grinds. Clever new things often die in division contests. Sunday they play the New York Giants in New Jersey. As a division rival, the Giants will have studied Griffin and the new Washington offense more than most teams. They will test Griffin and they will hit him as he runs with the ball.
The game will probably be close. The temptation will loom to get an extra yard, to absorb a hit that might get him a few more feet toward a first down. Can he resist it? Can he slide? Can he duck out of bounds? Can he forget the honor of the pain?
It might be the biggest adjustment Griffin will have to make yet.
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