Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan is known as somewhat as an authoritarian and is not one who has shown himself to be that adaptable before. When he came to the Redskins in 2010, his signature move was to acquire 6-time Pro Bowler Donovan McNabb. McNabb though struggled to learn the system, but the team did little to build itself around McNabb’s strengths. Given that Robert Griffin IIIcame from a spread attack in college with some run/option elements, there were some concerns as to how he’d fit the Mike Shanahan system, which is based around a lot of timing patterns. It’s not an easy system for any quarterback to learn, much less a rookie with zero background, making those concerns even more valid.
Now Griffin did have some advantages to fit Mike Shanahan’s system. He has more than enough foot speed to be highly effective on rollouts and bootlegs (though still needs to work on accuracy on these throws). Griffin also possesses the work ethic and intelligence to pick-up the system as quickly as possible. Even with those natural advantages, to have Robert Griffin ready to run even a watered down version of the Mike Shanahan offense for the Washington Redskins week 1 would be a tall task Which is probably why Mike Shanahan wisely took a different approach than he did when he acquired Donovan McNabb.
Instead of trying to fit Robert Griffin to his offense, Mike Shanahan fit his offense to Robert Griffin. Coach Shanahan created a gameplan that utilized and featured Griffin’s greatest attributes (particularly his speed). In addition to utilizing Griffin’s best attributes, the gameplan also features quite a bit of similar plays that Griffin was familiar with from his spread attack days at Baylor. The Washington Redskins operated nearly the entire first half out of a shotgun formation, they also featured quite a bit of run/option plays. A number of the passing concepts were also more in line with a spread attack, particularly the number of wide receiver screens. The Washington Redskins last year attempted about 17% of their throws behind the line of scrimmage, yet their first six attempts on Sunday were behind the line throws (all complete). That is exactly how you can fit an offense to the strength of your quarterback.
By implementing a number of concepts from Robert Griffin’s college days, the Washington Redskins got another benefit; Griffin was more comfortable, which also meant he was more successful. To allow Griffin to get his feet wet, with safe, simple throws and play calls, made it a much smoother transition. That way when more traditional elements of the Mike Shanahan offense were implemented, Griffin had some confidence (and a lead). Though the timing routes weren’t as sharp, it’s not as big of an issue in a more diversified offense. An example of how Griffin struggled more with the basic Shanahan offense, was on the play fake, where Griffin tripped over Alfred Morris leading to a fumble. Taking the ball from center and timing the fake handoff is a new area for Griffin, one that we’ve seen as an issue this preseason as well. He’s obviously far more comfortable with his play fakes from out of a shotgun formation, something that he’s practiced countless times.
Though it may be surprising to Washington Redskins fans and pundits, just how much Mike Shanahan has implemented spread concepts, perhaps it shouldn’t be. When I asked at a Senior Bowl press conference about adjusting college quarterbacks to an NFL system, Coach Shanahan acknowledged that spread and option elements could work in the NFL:
“Well the interesting part about the NFL style is that usually it adapts. You know when I first came in the league, everyone said ‘you can’t play the 3-4 in the NFL, that’s college, you can’t play the 3-4 it’s a 4-3 league’ My question was ‘why’, this was back in the early 80’s. I think in terms of QB’s you will see the NFL style change a little bit, with the QB’s who can run the option and a little bit of what they are doing in college with the spread offense, and I think you will see that adapt to the NFL here and there. But the prototype NFL QB is what we are doing here, we aren’t going to do all shotgun, we are just going to do basic stuff so everyone can evaluate players and see how they can fit into a system.”
Given his track record that is a surprising statement from Coach Shanahan, and it was also over a month before the Washington Redskins would make the trade for Robert Griffin. Yet he saw that adaptation was possible and could have a positive impact in the NFL game. Now, he may have had Griffin in mind when he made that statement, but it wasn’t a certainty that Griffin would be a Washington Redskin. Having gotten a quarterback who fits those concepts, it is good to see that he was true to his word and tweaked his offense. Obviously it is just one game, but Coach Shanahan deserves a lot of credit, for how he is transitioning Robert Griffin into the NFL.