For all of Robert Griffin III’s gaudy numbers last year, the Washington Redskins passing game actually slipped from 14th in the NFL in 2011 to 20th in 2012.
And considering that only New Orleans and Tampa Bay had worse pass defenses than the Redskins last season, it’s amazing that Griffin and Co. won the franchise’s first NFC East title since 1999 while ending a five-year playoff drought.
Griffin’s 102.4 passer rating was not only the highest ever by a rookie, but it ranked third in the league behind only those of Super Bowl MVPs Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay and Peyton Manning of Denver. Those two veterans and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan were the only quarterbacks to top Griffin’s 65.6 completion percentage. Two-time MVP Tom Brady of New England was the only passer with a lower interception percentage than Griffin’s 1.3 and no one exceeded his 8.14 yards per completion.
So how could Washington drop six spots in passing from the bad old days with Rex “The Turnover Machine” Grossman at quarterback?
The biggest reason is that the Redskins were so effective on the ground with rookie running back Alfred Morris and Griffin in their zone read scheme that they threw the ball just 442 times – 25 percent fewer than the league average of 556. Only Super Bowl champion San Francisco and Seattle, which ended Washington’s season in the wild card round, attempted fewer passes.
The Redskins also lacked a receiver who scared opposing defenses, especially once tight end Fred Davis was lost for the season during the first quarter of Week 7 after catching 24 passes for 325 yards.
While veteran receiver Santana Moss tied for 15th in the NFL with eight touchdown catches, Washington didn’t have a player among the top 50 in catches or receiving yards. Wideouts Josh Morgan (48 catches) and Pierre Garcon (44) led the team, finishing 40th and tied for 46th in the NFC, respectively. Garcon (633 receiving yards), Moss (573), second-year receiver Leonard Hankerson (543) and Morgan (510) gave the Redskins a quartet of 500-yard pass-catchers, but they ranked just 37th, 39th, 44th and 46th in the conference, respectively.
Also, despite Griffin’s elusiveness and a surprisingly strong season by an offensive line led by newly-minted Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams, Washington ranked just 21st in sacks allowed per pass.
Looking ahead to next year, the Redskins can expect to be a better passing offense, assuming Griffin is fully recovered from his Jan. 9 knee surgery. He and fellow 2012 rookie quarterback Kirk Cousins will have had a year to absorb coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s offense. That’s also the case for Garcon and Morgan, who signed as free agents last March.
Davis, left guard Kory Lichtensteiger and right tackle Tyler Polumbus are all due to hit the market on March 12, but since the former is likely unable to work out for teams while recovering from a torn Achilles and the latter pair are well-suited for coach Mike Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme, they all figure to re-sign with Washington.
The offense is also a young unit. Center Will Montgomery, who turns 30 next week, and right guard Chris Chester, who did so last month, are the only starters who’ll be even that old next season. Third receiver Moss will be 34 in June, but everyone else will be no older than 28.
That should allow for necessary improvement in 2013 since opposing defenses will likely spend much of their offseason figuring out how to control Morris, Griffin and the NFL’s top-ranked running game of 2012.
In a league that’s ever more focused on the pass, the Redskins are tempting fate if they expect to take the next step next season without being better at throwing the ball.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin