Washington Redskins  

 

Robert Griffin III and Jay Gruden: Inside a budding relationship

ASHBURN, Va. -- Jay Gruden was hired to coach a superstar.

But he says that's anything but what he's found the task to be with Robert Griffin III, as the Washington Redskins work through organized team activities and approach the summer break.

Yes, Griffin is high-profile. Yes, there's the ugly way last season played out. Yes, there's a lot on the line, considering what the franchise has invested in its 24-year-old front man. Yes, this is a player who's basked in a smoldering spotlight since bursting onto the national scene midway through the 2011 college season.

And yet, what has struck Gruden the most thus far is ...

"How smart he is," Gruden said, in a private moment after Wednesday's OTA practice. "He picked up everything effortlessly. He works hard at it, he studies it, he understands the position, and he's willing to learn and willing to take coaching. A guy with as much success as he's had, as early as he is in this young stage of his life, some guys are like, 'Eh, I don't need your coaching, I don't need this, I wanna do it my way.' He's not that way at all. He wants to be coached, he wants to learn the game, he wants to study.

"He wants to be the greatest. And he knows he has a long way to go, which is refreshing from a guy that's had a Heisman Trophy and as much publicity as he's had. He knows he has work to do, and he's willing to put in the work. That's strikes me as ... I just wasn't expecting that."

Hard to blame Gruden for his preconceived notions. No matter which side you fall on, the waning moments of the 2013 Redskins' 3-13 campaign were marked by a clash between old-school coach and new-school quarterback. Some saw the former as unbending. Others saw the latter as too headstrong.

So there was a shakeup. Mike Shanahan was fired. General manager Bruce Allen was given more control and, eventually, the title of president. Gruden was brought in to fix the rest.

The way the new head coach sees it, when it comes to the game's most vital position, he already has plenty to work with.

"I think the total package you look for in a quarterback, if you're gonna create a player on Xbox, a quarterback, I think it'd look like (Griffin)," Gruden said. "I want a guy that can run 4.4, 4.3. I want a guy that can throw it this far, I want a guy that can scramble in the pocket. I want a guy that's smart enough to handle this, this and this. That's what you want. Now, it's time for him to go out there and do it."

Gruden very cautiously concedes that his relationship with Griffin might be the most important one in the building -- "It is, but I think my relationship with everybody is important" -- and as such, the new boss knows these days are important ones. Gruden, who spent the past three seasons as the Cincinnati Bengals' offensive coordinator, landed the Redskins' head-coaching gig on Jan. 9. He's been working with RGIII since the offseason program began on April 7. What's next? Plenty.

During our conversation, Gruden detailed where he and Griffin need to go over the coming months. To be sure, there's lots of work to do.

The Offense

Griffin said Wednesday that there are similarities between the offense he ran under Shanahan and the one Gruden is installing now, in that both have West Coast roots. But, Gruden said, "For certain plays and schemes, you have to treat them like he's never heard of them -- because he's never heard of them. And then you have to show him."

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The coach said they put in maybe 25 or 30 concepts in a typical day, and the offense will rep those against a certain coverage and look. The next day, the concept might come against a different look -- and no one will have more responsibility to react to that change than Griffin. In that way, Gruden says there are times he has to coach Griffin like he did Andy Dalton when Dalton was a Bengals rookie in 2011. Other times it's easier, because Griffin is familiar with the concept.

"It's a whole training of your brain -- where you wanna go, how quick you can get there, the decisions you make as a quarterback against each coverage with each concept," Gruden said. "It'll take some time. But we have a lot of time, we have some film projectors in here, and he's willing to look at those and study them."

The Player

In describing Griffin as a dreamt-up video-game terror, Gruden freely admits there's a personal challenge rooted in his lack of experience with dual-threat quarterbacks. He's learning, too. He doesn't want Griffin to have his head ripped off. He also doesn't want to black out a rare athlete's electricity.

"It's one of the great dilemmas that I have as a coach," he explained. "How do you tell a guy not to scramble, when I see Russell Wilson and (Colin) Kaepernick and even Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers make some of the biggest plays throughout the course of a game or season on broken plays? So you can't just say, 'Robert, I want you in the pocket; if it's not there, throw it away.' I want him to be himself and play."


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Griffin logged 120 carries (eight per game) in his Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign of 2012. That number dropped to 86, or 6.6 per game, last year. Gruden's still figuring out whether it should dip again in 2014.

"I'm not gonna be the type of guy that's like, 'Hey, don't ever scramble. Stay in the pocket. I want you to be like Tom Brady,' " Gruden said. "Part of the thing that draws you to a guy like that is that he's not like everyone else. He's a special player playing the position like nobody else has played it. So we have to use his strengths, also. Maybe sometimes, he makes a poor decision or takes a hard hit that, hopefully, he gets up from. In the meantime, part of my job is to reduce the risk."

The Mindset

Gruden said he can reduce the risk plenty through play calling, managing the number of called runs and finding ways to get the ball out of Griffin's hands quicker. But there's also an element that he's coaching into Griffin now, as Shanahan did in 2012 and '13.

The coach and quarterback have watched plenty of film to try to improve Griffin's habits on two fronts. First, there's tape that shows Griffin bypassing chances to get out of bounds unscathed -- opting instead to pick up a couple of extra yards. Gruden is trying to get his QB to weigh risk and reward, teaching him that punting can be OK.

"Get yourself out of bounds, let's get to the huddle and play the next one," Gruden said, relating his advice to RGIII. "But like I said before, he's such a competitor; he wants every play to succeed. He's gotta understand, the defense is gonna win their battles. It's about winning the entire war, so to speak, from the position. Knowing when to throw it away and punt."

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Second, there's the issue of ball security, which Gruden sees as paramount.

"You don't have to scramble around and hold the ball out here and get a forced fumble," Gruden said. "Part of it is uncoachable. It's instinct."

The Progression

During Griffin's transcendent 2012 season, many were quick to crown the quarterback. The truth is, he was running many of his college concepts as a rookie. Eventually, the NFL caught up to some of it, and in that way, part of his growth was delayed a year. The ACL tear that required him to undergo surgery in January 2013 only complicated that. All of which Gruden recognizes.

"He's gotta play," Gruden said. "He's not gonna become the greatest quarterback in Year 3; he's gonna have his growing pains. It's a matter of learning the position, and learning situations, protections, when to throw it away, when not to throw it away, when maybe not to take that hit. All that. All the situations, the touch throws, the anticipation throws, the deep throws. Every game is different, and is gonna become a different challenge for him. ... He's just gotta play."

The good news? Gruden sees a player who can roll with the punches, pointing to a sequence of plays on Wednesday as evidence. Griffin threw a pick, overthrew a receiver on an out-breaking route, then threw another pick. Backup Kirk Cousins came in to get his reps, then third-stringer Colt McCoy took his turn. Griffin came back and, Gruden said, reeled off "four great plays," showing an ability to process his mistakes and continue moving forward.

"We're challenging him right now," Gruden said. "We're throwing a lot of fastballs at him -- see what he can hit. Some good, hard-breaking pitches, low and away -- see what happens, see if he bites at them. It's great. He's handled it great, man."

And that brings us back to the crucial nature of the relationship between Gruden, a former quarterback himself and a teacher of the position by trade, and Griffin. The third-year Redskin is reluctant to expound on it now, because he knows the implications of his words and how they could be projected back to last year. But Gruden sees positive signs.

"There's gotta be some trust there," he said. "I know Robert already, and I have a solid enough relationship there where he knows I'm not gonna call him out, and I know he's not gonna call me out. Whatever happens, I know we're on the same page, with the same goals in mind, and that's to win as many games as possible. And that's all that matters, the goals we have. As long as he's working every day, buying into the system, then everything is gonna go smoothly."

Which is to say, so far, so good.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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