The Redskins and the Cowboys — what a difference two years make

Tomorrow, the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys meet in the final game of the regular NFL season. Two years ago, these teams also played in the regular season finale.

Then, first place in the NFC East was on the line. The Redskins, led by their brilliant rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, prevailed.

Tomorrow, nothing much is on the line. The Cowboys have already won the NFC East; the Redskins have clinched last place.

At the end of the game two years ago, Griffin approached Tony Romo, the Cowboys’ outstanding but oft-criticized quarterback. The microphone picked up Griifin saying:

Hey Tony. I just wanted to say to you, don’t listen to what anybody else is saying about you. You’re a great quarterback, man. And this game doesn’t mean anything.

The comment captured part of what is likable about Griffin — his good sportsmanship and generosity of spirit. This is a guy who wants to do and say the right things.

But it struck me as perhaps a bit presumptuous for a rookie quarterback to assure a veteran star like Romo that he’s a great quarterback. By doing so, Griffin confirmed my fear that he had mistaken a single (the fine start to his NFL career) for a home run, a common error of the young.

My fear gathered momentum after the first game of the following season. Rushing back from serious injury to play in the opener, Griffin had a terrible game. Afterwards, he shrugged off the debacle as an aberration, saying “Alf (running back Alfred Morris) doesn’t fumble; Kai (Forbath, the kicker) doesn’t miss field goals; and I don’t throw interceptions.”

What Griffin missed was the fact that a big reason why he threw very few interceptions as a rookie was the offense designed for him by offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. That offense utilized Griffin’s ability to run the ball, often in the context of a college style “read option” look, to (1) minimize the opposition’s pass rush and (2) produce receivers who would be open on Griffin’s first read.

Kyle Shanhan and his head coach father Mike were compensating for the fact that Griffin hadn’t played in a pro-style passing offense in college. As a result, they considered him shaky in the pocket and incapable of going through the “progression” by which quarterbacks find the proper receiver.

Reportedly, the Shanahans thought it would take around four years for Griffin to develop into a standard issue drop-back pocket-passer. Understandably, they were unwilling to wait that long.

As I noted, though, Griffin sustained a serious injury at the end of his first season. He came back unwilling, and perhaps initially unable, to be a running quarterback. He and his father made several public pronouncements to the effect that the great quarterbacks aren’t runners and that Griffin didn’t want to be one either.

Without this dimension, Griffin looked very much like a rookie quarterback in his second year. With the team’s record at 3-10, Mike Shanahan benched him, a clear showing of lack of confidence which he reinforced through leaks.

As soon as the season ended, owner Daniel Snyder, who had developed a personal friendship with Griffin, fired the Shanahans. Snyder brought in Jay Gruden, a quarterback guru, as the new head coach. His mission: develop Griffin.

By the beginning of the season, however, rumor had it that Gruden was questioning whether Griffin could be developed into a quality drop-back quarterback. Griffin’s performance in the opener could only have confirmed Gruden’s alleged impression.

Griffin was injured in the second game. In mid-season, when he was ready to return, backup quarterback Colt McCoy had just led the team to two straight victories (cause for celebration in these parts), including one over the Cowboys.

Gruden nonetheless handed the starting job back to Griffin. Rumor had it that the decision was imposed on him from above.

Many of the players reportedly were unhappy with McCoy’s demotion. Star receiver DeSean Jackson gave a pre-game talk urging the team to rally behind Griffin.

On his return, Griffin’s play continued to be substandard. Now, rumor had it, Gruden wanted to give up on Griffin. If the rumor was false, the coach’s biting post-game public criticisms of his quarterback represented an extreme manifestation of tough love.

A persistent criticism of Griffin, both in the Shanahan and the Gruden era, is that he doesn’t spend enough time studying film. I don’t know whether the criticism is valid but, as noted, Griffin has at times made me feel that he considers himself more advanced as a quarterback than he actually is.

Eventually, Gruden benched Griffin, as Shanahan had done. But when McCoy was injured early in the game two weeks ago against the New York Giants, Griffin returned to action.

That day, his play showed some improvement. And last week, in an upset victory against the Philadelphia Eagles, Griffin played well. Gruden even praised his quarterback during the post-game interview. Is the “tough love” starting to pay off?

It seems unlikely that Snyder will permit the Redskins to give up on Griffin, for whom he traded three first-round draft picks plus a second-rounder. And because Gruden is finishing the first year of a lucrative five-year contract, there’s a good chance that he’ll be back next year too.

Thus, though the Redskins in a sense have little to play for tomorrow, fans have a stake in seeing Griffin play well enough to increase his coach’s level of faith in him. Most of us also want to see Griffin succeed because we like him.

If the Cowboys win, Tony Romo may be tempted to assure Griffin that he’s a great quarterback, no matter what anybody else is saying. The problem is, there’s no case to be made that Griffin is a great quarterback. Redskins fans are just hoping that next year, after two poor seasons, he’ll be a good one.

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