ASHBURN, Va. – Robert Griffin III should be overwhelmed by now, begging for the playbook to be cut. Instead, the Washington Redskins make it more complex.
Longtime Redskins tight end Chris Cooley realized this in October, just two months after the team released him. He watched at home as the Redskins played the New York Giants and the offense resembled little of the one he learned through training camp.
"I could not have told you one-third of it," Cooley said Wednesday morning. "I couldn't watch a lot of plays and tell you how they got to this.
"And that was just eight weeks in."
We are getting to a point where Griffin's rookie season is becoming a marvel to which others will be compared. His passer rating of 104.6 is exceeded only by Aaron Rogers, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. He has thrown eight touchdowns in his past two games while being intercepted only once. The other day, Fox analyst and two-time Super Bowl-winning coach Jimmy Johnson said Griffin is the league's MVP. It is not the kind of conversation you have about a quarterback just 11 games to his NFL career, not one on a team with a 5-6 record.
Then again, where would the Redskins be had they not given the St. Louis Rams three first-round picks to get RG3? The once-mighty NFC East has crumbled. The Philadelphia Eagles are a shell of a once-fierce franchise. The Dallas Cowboys no longer tease with promise. A chance looms for Griffin and the Redskins to steal a division they have no business winning should they beat the Giants on Monday night. It is a chance that exists because the quarterback upon whom they are building their future continues to handle everything shoved his way.
"It’s tough to learn a new play every day and learn a new concept and master it," Griffin said. "But they did that for a reason so that we could come out during the season and run whatever was in our playbook for that week against that defense."
There has never been a quarterback quite like this: one with an Olympic sprinter's speed and a precise arm. Usually you get one or the other. The running quarterbacks lack accuracy. The accurate quarterbacks can't run. Griffin thrives at both.
And because he continues to improve – showing the coaches he can handle new concepts, never making the same mistake twice – the Redskins' coaches keep adding new plays, new wrinkles, new directions.
"I've never seen an offense like this," Cooley said.
This is saying something because Cooley once played for an offensive coordinator, Al Saunders, who flooded the Redskins with a 700-page playbook. "What he's been able to do is amazing," Cooley said.
When the Redskins called Cooley back on the day after the first Giants game, he came back to the same meeting rooms he had left just weeks before and clutched a playbook supposedly similar to the one he studied in the summer. Yet he sat stunned in his first discussion with the team's offensive coaches.
"I said: 'Well, this will be most notes I've ever taken [in a meeting],' " Cooley said.
"There is no boredom in the two-hour meetings, there is so much to learn," he said. "There is no looking out the window."
Maybe with another quarterback the Redskins wouldn't be trying this experiment. Maybe they would be running something more traditional, without the option plays and the abundant variations of each base play – all of it so different from a few weeks before.
"The moving parts are more than I've ever seen," Cooley said.
But because Griffin is so fast and because he rarely misses receivers and has only been intercepted four times this year, coach Mike Shanahan and his son Kyle, the offensive coordinator, continue with this hybrid of NFL and college offenses that has befuddled defenses for much of the year. At times, Mike Shanahan wonders if he is burdening his young star with too much. He worries too about the young offensive line and the new receivers and rookie running backs. Then he sees the plays work seamlessly in practice and so he continues pushing new material.
Two weeks ago, it seemed maybe the Redskins had imploded. They had lost to the Carolina Panthers. They were 3-6 and broken down. Mike Shanahan talked about looking at players for the future, which sounded very much like he was talking about packing up the season. Then the players went away for the bye week and everything seemed different when they returned. Pierre Garcon, out since the opening game, came back and is the deep threat that had been missing. Fellow receivers Aldrick Robinson, Joshua Morgan and Leonard Hankerson were suddenly better. Then came the wins over the Eagles and Cowboys and it was as if everything had clicked.
"They played at a higher level than they have played all year," Shanahan said Wednesday as he stood outside the Redskins' practice facility. "That is what you have to have."
The reason for all of this had walked by a few minutes before, wearing the traditional yellow jersey of the quarterback at practice. RG3 was smiling as he always seems to be. Everything seems so easy for him: the playbook, the offense, the NFL. His comfort seems to rub off on the men around him. And so instead of blowing up the season, the Shanahans made it more complicated, adding to an offense that had already grown broad and complex.
Now there is at least a playoff conversation that seemed ridiculous two weeks ago.
And that has everything to do with the quarterback who is unlike any they have had before.
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