|The Redskins keep it simple on offense for Robert Griffin III in his preseason debut and he plays well. (AP)|
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- This Redskins season is about hope. It's about sustaining a vibe that the best is yet to come and improving steadily and leaving a wounded fan base with a sense that this franchise has finally turned a corner. Progress in the standings would be great; developing a quarterback is imperative.
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Rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, of course, is the key to all of this. As he goes, so goes the collective psyche of Redskins Nation. It's as simple as that. And tonight, in his first ever NFL appearance, Griffin looked quite capable of engendering feelings of renewal and joy. The Heisman winner led one scoring drive, finished 4 of 6 for 70 yards and a touchdown, and established a nice little foundation to build upon next week in the Redskins 7-6 victory over the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
He left the game, after his third drive at the helm, on the most positive note possible, hitting primary target Pierre Garcon underneath and watching him prance 20 yards into the end zone. Griffin was elated, running back about 15 yards in a looping arc, going to a knee quickly as he pumped his fist, and then joining his teammates on the sidelines in celebration. It was an absolutely perfect time to yank him from this poorly (replacement) refereed exhibition, with about six minutes left in the opening quarter.
"He stepped up and made some plays," coach Mike Shanahan said of his novice quarterback. "He was very calm, cool and collected."
The Redskins, who gave up a bounty of draft picks to the Rams so they could move up four spots to second overall and select Griffin, kept things relatively vanilla, as is the norm in these contests. They were on the road against an opponent with a beefed up defensive line, with the Redskins piecing together a hodgepodge offensive line of their own. So Washington came out running and on the game's third play Griffin, who seemed a little nervous on some throws in warm-ups, delivered a perfect ball to Garcon on the left sideline for an apparent first down.
Garcon seemed to drag his toe well in bounds, but the officials ruled him out and the Redskins did not challenge.
"I thought I caught it in bounds," Garcon said, though this was far from the most egregious error of the evening, as a punt clearly downed at the 4 was ruled a touchback, and then overturned on challenge.
Griffin shrugged it off and hit Leonard Hankerson for 12 yards on the second play of the ensuing drive, which ended with another three-and-out.
He and Garcon connected three times for 58 yards on the touchdown drive, which began at the Washington 20. Garcon was coming free over the middle, picking up 20 yards in one chunk. The Bills jumped offsides around midfield and Griffin knew he had a free play and found Garcon for 18 yards. It ended with the touchdown pass to Garcon, with the blocking set up well in front of him, on third-and-3.
The rookie, such a force out in space with the ball in his hand, said he thought about keeping the ball in his hands and taking off, but better sense prevailed. No sense risking anything with nothing on the line, and when he saw a linebacker moving up to the line to mug, Griffin instead figured the best bet was to find his hot read.
The Redskins called timeout on the previous play, then sent the same formation back on the field, in a three-receiver set. Griffin knew he had to lob the ball over the oncoming end -- he isn't the tallest quarterback and didn't want the ball knocked down -- and then was able to read the field well. He felt like his reads were cleaner tonight than they had been in practice, where he was facing that same Redskins defense day after day.
"I exhausted my three progressions and made it to my fourth one," Griffin said. "So that was good. Coach was happy."
The Bills, who believe the pass rush will be much improved with Mario Williams and Mark Anderson in the mix, didn't blitz much, and, again, the Redskins prized incubating Griffin above all else. They went with a lot of two receiver sets with two backs in an I-formation, only occasionally going with a bunch formation or trips.
"It was pretty obvious they protected him," said Bills nose tackle Kyle Williams. "They did not want him to get hit. That being said, he made a couple of plays throwing the ball. It is kind of hard to judge him because I do not think we saw everything they are going to do with him this year."
Chatting with a few of the scouts assembled at the game, the general consensus was that Griffin acquitted himself quite well. He looked the part. After his whirlwind media tours and national advertising campaign, a half-filled stadium for a preseason game certainly wasn't too big a stage for him.
On what was an otherwise mundane -- if not outright boring contest -- the touchdown pass amounted to fireworks. The Bills, meantime, came out throwing, with Ryan Fitzpatrick passing on all 14 snaps under center, and it wasn't pretty. The objective was to establish a fast tempo on the attack, go no-huddle in spread formations and get multiple receivers involved. Instead, he connected to tight end Scott Chandler primarily, the offense never looked comfortable and Fitzpatrick completed six passes with a rating of 56.
"I thought it was really poor," Fitzpatrick said of the offensive outing.
No one will get too carried away with Griffin's performance, but coming the first few weeks of training camp, where he tended to run a little hot or cold, it was certainly a step forward. He knows that many wrinkles will be kept under wraps until September, and he won't be running the kind of bootlegs and waggles that Shanahan has perfected, that so suit Griffin's talents.
The Redskins will need to get this offensive line sorted out as Griffin's reps increase throughout this preseason, with injuries taking a toll on what was already a questionable group. Starting left tackle Trent Williams, who has been oft injured with his durability questioned going back to college, has a sore foot, though X-rays were negative. Tonight, in such a limited sample, Griffin was fine, but we'll if that remains the case.
"I didn't get touched today," Griffin said, defending his beleaguered unit. "That was a great feeling."
Griffin spent a good bit of his time on the sidelines the remainder of the game next to Garcon, soaking up his suggestions. He kept his mind trained on the game, looking at the defense, getting mental reps with the back-ups taking over, Garcon giving him pointers.
"He just tried to tell me to make sure I stayed focused," Griffin said.
The attention will remain fixed on Griffin, especially at the third preseason game, and a meeting with first overall pick Andrew Luck, and then with Week 1 looming not long after that. If he can get better each month, and absorb and process what is thrown his way, then that's all you can ask for. Steady progress, with the understanding there will be missteps along the way.
This was a strong opening statement. It's not going to erase memories of John Beck or Shane Matthews or Danny Wuerffel or Tony Banks or Patrick Ramsey just yet. But there's already a sense that this time it will all be very different, and the Redskins are closer to finding their solution at quarterback than they've been in a long, long time.