If you really want to protect your quarterback, don't let your opponent take a 33-7 lead.
Run up a big lead of your own, and your quarterback can hand off and jog away, or drink Gatorade in a baseball cap while the backup mops up the 4th quarter. Keep the game close, and you can be unpredictable, keeping the defense on its heels. Even the option brings a minimal risk in a close game, as it brings both the element of surprise and the chance to run out of bounds or slide away from trouble.
But fall behind 33-7, and the blitzes start. Defenders come right up the middle. The defense doesn't care about your running game or play action. Extra blockers? No way, you need every receiver running a pattern. Fall behind 33-7, and your quarterback must either stand in the pocket and takes his licks or run for his life. He gets hit by linebackers and defensive ends, or even teammates, as he scampers to the sideline.
The Redskins took no unnecessary risks with Robert Griffin in the most anticipated, overhyped comeback since Elvis in 1968. Griffin kept the ball for zero designed running plays. The Redskins only called three plays that conceivably could be called "options," and a running back ended up with the ball on each of them. Heck, Griffin only rolled out of the pocket by design twice.
Yet by the end of a 33-27 Eagles win that was not remotely as close as the final score, Griffin had been sacked three times, hit nine times and forced to scramble eight times. That's because the Redskins took all safety precautions except one: They forgot to play well, at least until the game got out of hand.
When it comes to quarterback health, the best defense is a good offense. The Redskins did not have one through three quarters on Monday night. Griffin was a major part of the problem. He was rusty. His mechanics were sloppy. His reads were out of kilter. He threw interceptions into tight coverage and wobblers out of bounds. There is a reason even Tom Brady and Drew Brees take preseason snaps, despite the injury risk; even Hall of Famers need some snaps to re-acclimate to live action. Second-year phenoms, even those with "superhuman" recuperative powers, need a little preseason, too.
But part of the problem was the game plan. Griffin's child safety car seat was a little too restrictive for the Redskins' good. Griffin took snaps from the pistol, handed off to Alfred Morris and jogged backward, making it as clear as possible that there would be no option wizardry on Monday night. Morris, a 1,600-yard rusher, is not the same player when defenders can ignore the threat of a Griffin bootleg. Morris fumbled twice, once in the end zone for a safety. He got stacked up by an over-pursuing defense. The read-option is designed to counter over-pursuit. The Redskins barely threatened with it.
Morris was not the only player who missed the freewheelin' ways of 2012. Pierre Garcon, Leonard Hankerson, Josh Morgan and the 34-year old version of Santana Moss are threats because Griffin and the system make them threats. In an ordinary scheme, they are a pretty ordinary receiving corps. Their end-of-game statistics were inflated by a 4th quarter surge; in the first half, the Redskins' four wide receivers combined for four catches and 44 yards. Fullback Darrel Young dropped a pass. In a suddenly ordinary system, ordinary players unsurprisingly looked ordinary, sometimes worse.
Morris' safety revealed just how different this Redskins opener was from last year's. Griffin stepped onto the field and changed the NFL world last year. He made the Redskins offense look fresh and new on his very first drive; his pistols, options and screens pointed the way to Colin Kaepernick's emergence and Chip Kelly's ascension to the NFL, to say nothing of the Redskins' playoff trip and Griffin's own rise to superstardom. This year, Griffin took a first-quarter snap under center, deep in his own territory, and delivered an awkward pitch to Morris, who reacted as if he were shocked that the Redskins were suddenly doing all of this conventional stuff.
Meanwhile, Kelly's Eagles churned out 55 next-gen offensive plays in the first half, running up a lead and keeping Griffin on the sideline. A quarterback cannot get hurt on the sideline, but that was not the kind of protection the Redskins had in mind.
The Eagles led 33-7 early in the 3rd quarter, and that's when the field became a dangerous place for Griffin. He rollout out and took a shot from Trent Cole after delivering a short pass, then came up with a tiny-yet-noticeable limp. He took a massive hit from DeMeco Ryans on a blitz up the middle for a sack. In between, he rolled away from another blitz and crashed hard into Garcon as he ran out of bounds. Imagine the mood in Washington on Tuesday morning, if Griffin had gotten hurt in a sideline collision with a teammate.
Of the nine hits Griffin suffered, seven occurred in the pocket. The last one was a sack by Fletcher Cox late in the 4th quarter, when the Redskins made a game of it with a last-minute drive. Griffin also scrambled for his life twice on that final drive. If the Redskins had not been so reluctant to let Griffin run early, he may not have had to run so often late.
The good news for Redskins fans is that Griffin did not get hurt. The limp subsided, and he absorbed all the hits. Further good news: Griffin started to look like Griffin at game's end, delivering sharp passes from shotgun sets and, yes, making some plays with those legs. The Eagles eased up on the blitzes and became more prevent-oriented in the 4th quarter, but that's the kind of defense a quarterback needs to face to work the kinks out. Few humans on earth could benefit more from some tamping down of expectations than Griffin. He is not superhuman. He will still experience growing pains. He just got a bunch of them out of his system.
As for the Redskins, they are still finding that balance between protection and overprotection. Dialing back on the options is probably wise, but eliminating them completely is a bad idea. The best way to protect Griffin is to play well. The best way for the Redskins to play well is to do the things they do best. The best thing the Redskins do is keep defenses off-balance, by mixing the threat of Griffin pass, Morris run and Griffin run into every formation and play. Removing one of those elements does not enhance safety. It actually weakens the whole structure.