WASHINGTON — Robert Griffin III and Mike Shanahan peppered the men in stripes with questions when NFL officials made their annual presentation at Washington Redskins training camp, the quarterback and coach trying to get clarity on how the franchise player can protect himself.
“Mike asked a question, Robert asked a question — they should have had their own private little meeting,” backup quarterback Rex Grossman said.
The emergence of mobile quarterbacks like Griffin has presented a challenge not only for NFL defenses, but also for the refs, who have to discern what’s legal and what’s not when it comes to hits delivered to QBs. The zone-read, in which Griffin has the option of keeping the ball or handing it off based on how the defense reacts, is a specific new wrinkle that required some adjustment from all parties.
“That’s the beauty of this game,” referee Gene Steratore said Friday. “Every year it seems either by new unbelievable talent that comes along, the innovativeness of what the teams coach, what works and what doesn’t work — five years ago it was the wildcat, now we’re talking about potential read-option plays back in the National Football League because of the talent that’s progressing into the league. It’s a never-ending learning experience for officials, coaches and players.”
The teams want to know what the officials are looking for, and that’s what these training camp visits are all about. Steratore and three other officials spent Thursday and Friday watching Redskins practices and chatting informally with coaches, players and each other. During one practice, two of the officials stood at the goal line pylon, discussing in detail the proper foot placement when judging a play close to the sidelines in the end zone.
The major presentation was Thursday night at the team hotel. The officials showed coaches and players a 13-minute video explaining this year’s major rules changes, including the elimination of the tuck rule and a new rule that penalizes running backs who lower their head straight-on into a defender in open field.
Then they took questions.
The Redskins were particularly concerned about plays in which Griffin runs the ball. He’s protected from hits if he slides in a timely manner, but it’s something he doesn’t do well and it costs yardage. But, if he goes head-first: “The chances of him being contacted are real,” Steratore said.
“When you consider what the Redskins have,” Steratore said, “as far as their quarterback is concerned, and the potential for him to be running free downfield, I would think it would be a question that they’d want to have clearly defined.”
Griffin missed all or part of four games last season due to various injuries and had reconstructive knee surgery in January. The two more significant hits he took came when he was scrambling downfield after he was unable to find an open receiver — not on designed runs or plays using the zone read.
Shanahan says that’s proof that the zone read actually protects his quarterback because defensive players can’t rush full-bore. They have to pause a beat to see who has the ball and react accordingly.
Last year, officials informed Griffin that he is susceptible to being hit when he pretends he has the ball after handing it off. They encouraged him to raise his empty hands after he releases it.
But when he keeps the ball, he’s live game. Griffin absorbed a lot of hits last year, usually because he wouldn’t slide or get out of bounds before defenders closed in on him.
Griffin has vowed to be more judicious this year about when to go for the extra yard and when to slide. The tricky thing for the officials is to judge whether, for example, he starts his slide too late to keep himself safe.
“The abuse that he takes, I think there’s some concern to get down and protect yourself better (instead of) fighting for that extra yard, especially on the sideline,” Grossman said. “He got hit so many times — just get out.”
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