The last three times the Redskins made the playoffs, it was on the back of a second-half surge in 2005, 2007 and 2012. The Redskins entered their bye week at 3-6 much like they did in 2012, but this year, the defense is forcing fewer turnovers. The only game the Redskins were actually out of in the first nine games of 2012 was against Pittsburgh. They had given up a victory with a blown coverage late against the Giants.
Robert Griffin III was fully healthy and playing well back then, after a sensational debut in the first game of the season against New Orleans. With RG3’s health an unknown variable in 2014, the Redskins would be best served trying to find out what kind of quarterback he will be coming off his dislocated ankle. The good news is that this time, no one has made Redskins head coach Jay Gruden backtrack on his comments that he’ll use RG3’s running skills.
Tony Dungy commented that RG3 is no longer the stunning athlete he used to be. He doesn’t have to be. At RG3’s peak, the only quarterback faster than him was Michael Vick, even though many have pointed out that RG3’s speed is more straight-line and not as elusive as Vick’s, even though it doesn’t keep either of them from getting injured. At his best, Mark Brunell ran around a 4.6 40. That’s all you need as an NFL quarterback to make defenses account for you as a running threat, assuming that he was equally good at passing.
It would be best to compare RG3 to other quarterbacks that have suffered knee injuries. Among them, Carson Palmer and Tom Brady are not applicable to RG3’s case because they are primarily pocket passers. Daunte Culpepper was a mobile quarterback, but his case is not applicable because the severity of his knee injury was much greater and catastrophic to the point that it ended his NFL career.
The two closest cases are Randall Cunningham and Brunell. Cunningham suffered a torn ACL and MCL in Week 1 of the 1991 season. Cunningham lost his job to Rodney Peete when the Eagles made a coaching change after the 1994 season. Cunningham didn’t fit Ray Rhodes’s desire for a West Coast-style QB. He was out of football for a year before he resurfaced with Minnesota and led the Vikings offense on a magical run that unfortunately ended in the 1998 NFC Championship Game.
Cunningham never changed his style even after his injury, mostly due to coaching on the part of Rich Kotite, who continued Buddy Ryan’s strategy of having Cunningham make a few plays on offense and then let the vaunted Eagles defense handle the rest. “I remember Buddy used to say to Randall, ‘All I need is for you to make four or five plays a game to make the difference,’ one former teammate told Sports Illustrated’s Peter King. “And Randall used to go out and make these unbelievable plays, plays nobody else could make. Buddy was relying on Randall’s athletic ability and not his ability to read or learn defenses, and that turned out to be Randall’s undoing.” Kotite described Cunningham, “If he wasn`t pressured he didn`t run. If he was, he improvised as he does so well.”
This continued even after Cunningham broke his left fibula in Week 5 of the 1993 season. Cunningham had led the Eagles to a 4-0 record and was named NFC Offensive Player of the Month before that untimely injury.
Cunningham never wanted to change. If you go over some of his quotes from 1992: “I`ll be back scramblin’.” “Those who doubt me don`t believe in me. There`s no doubt in my mind I`ll make it back all the way.” “My instincts are still with me. If I lost my instincts, I probably would have retired. I`m not going to try to be somebody I`m not. I`m going to be Randall Cunningham as long as I can perform at that level.” “I`m not going to sit in the pocket like Joe Montana and complete 70 percent of my passes. I`m not going to scramble like Fran Tarkenton and launch bombs. I`m just going to play football the way I want to and the way the coach wants me to.”
Even if someone pointed out that he was becoming more conventional prior to the 1991 injury, Cunningham said, “I did scramble less, because I was dropping back and completing 70 percent of my passes. But I haven`t changed. I still enjoy that style. If something opens up and I have to dip through and get a few yards, it`s OK by me.”
Brunell is a closer comparison. Brunell, like RG3, was still a running quarterback after his first ACL tear in the spring game after his sophomore season at Washington in which he was named Rose Bowl MVP. When Brunell led the NFL in passing yardage in 1996 with 4,367 yards and ran for 396 yards, he still threw 20 interceptions to go along with 19 touchdowns.
Brunell didn’t become a pocket passer until after he led the Jaguars to the 1996 AFC Championship Game and was rewarded with a big contract. That moment came after he missed the preseason and the first two games of the season after suffering a partially torn ACL, MCL, and PCL in the first game of the 1997 preseason.
Brunell, like RG3, displayed a willingness to adapt to being a pocket passer. “It’s very easy, and this will almost sound too basic, but it’s reps,” Brunell told ESPN’s John Keim. “It’s going through OTAs and minicamps and training camp with the mindset of, ‘I’m dropping back and absolutely have to find a receiver.’ There are four or five receivers in each pass route and your job is to find the open guy.”
After the Jaguars had clinched a playoff berth against Buffalo in Week 16 of the 1997 season, then-Jaguars head coach Tom Coughlin said, ”He had a great decision-making game. His spontaneity was better, and he made plays on the run. He also took some pretty good hits and still delivered the ball very well. It’s a shame he had the interception, but he still had a solid game.” Jaguars center Dave Widell said, ”He’s improving with every game and gaining the poise he needs to be successful. That includes not throwing the ball away. He’s leading the offense as he should be.”
“I had to sit in the pocket and throw,” after the injury, Brunell told Keim. “I moved a little bit and not nearly as effectively as before. Going into the ‘98 season, I felt better as a pocket passer. It probably took me a year. I never got to the same speed, but it put me in position where I was forced to develop as a passer. In a way it was one of the best things for me.”
Gary Clark said before the season began that this could be the best offense the Redskins have had since 1991. On paper, it compares favorably with the 1999 offense with quarterback Brad Johnson, running back Stephen Davis, receivers Michael Westbrook and Albert Connell along with tight end Stephen Alexander. One place where they don’t compare well is the offensive line, where Trent Williams is by far the best player, as well he should since he was the fourth pick of the 2010 draft. The Redskins have used precious few draft picks on the line dating back to the Mike Shanahan era.
Tight end Jordan Reed is healthy again, while DeSean Jackson leads the NFL in yards per catch. Pierre Garcon is only one year removed from breaking Art Monk’s single season receiving record, and Andre Roberts was brought in from Arizona to be the No. 2 receiver before the signing of Jackson. The running game with Alfred Morris has been coming around since halftime against Dallas.
With the vast array of offensive weapons in the Redskins arsenal, the playcalling has been very conservative thus far. Through Week 8 against the Cowboys, “All three quarterbacks combined have thrown 45.5% of their passes within the 0-9 yard window, with just 12.5 attempts traveling 20 yards or more through the air. The receivers are expected to turn short passes into large gains through their feet, as Pierre Garcon did for his 70 yard touchdown in Week 8,” according to Trey Cunningham at Pro Football Focus.