A rookie quarterback outplayed Robert Griffin III. That is an inescapable fact, and Washington must confront it if its loss to the Minnesota Vikings isn't going to be fatal for its season. What happened in the fourth quarter Sunday was less about a physical failure on Griffin's part than a failure of understanding and awareness. He got beat by a 21-year-old in Teddy Bridgewater, who already shows a better grasp of NFL quarterbacking.
In a contest of arms and legs, Griffin will beat Bridgewater every time. He is viscerally the stronger, more electric athlete on both the pass and the run, and he should have been the more mature player and decision-maker, too. But he wasn't. As the smoke clears and Washington analyzes all the implications of its 29-26 loss – a momentum killing defeat that leaves them at 3-6 instead of on a win streak at 4-5 – that is the most disconcerting one: Bridgewater, an underweight, babyfaced kid with an odd slingshot delivery and a fluttering inaccuracy on deep balls, is ahead of Griffin.
Owner Dan Snyder and General Manager Bruce Allen apparently insisted that Griffin start for the first time after missing six games because of an ankle dislocation, because the club wants to hasten his development and appraise the long-term value of a player it gave up three first-round draft picks for. Fine. The argument that Griffin needed to play was reasonable, even if replacing Colt McCoy, the gamer who had led them to two straight victories, was disruptive. But now, it's vital for the team to recognize exactly what it saw in Griffin's play, and address it.
In trying to figure out where Griffin is at quarterback, a couple of things stand out. First, they can no longer deceive themselves that Griffin's lack of awareness is just a matter of development slowed by injury proneness. Yes, knee and ankle injuries have cost him precious time. Nevertheless, Griffin was a third-year quarterback making his 31st NFL start, while Bridgewater was making his sixth. Yet Bridgewater showed more in-game progress and understanding of what the opponent was trying to do to him, as he put together late-game scoring drives of 76 and 73 yards. (Granted, he had a more inviting view, given that he was looking at Washington's porous defense.)
Griffin is still a player of breathtaking flash, and he seemed healthy and even sharp as he completed his first six passes. But the fast start and big plays were also deceptive, because they wallpapered over other aspects of his performance: Of his 250 yards passing, 103 came on those first six completions. As Minnesota's defense adjusted to him, he failed to adjust in turn. He completed 12 of 22 passes the rest of the way – with five sacks and an interception, and that awkward feeble incompletion on fourth and six with the game on the line, that skidded along the ground at Pierre Garcon's ankles.
"Obviously on a lot of them it looked like we made some bad reads," Coach Jay Gruden said. "Robert made some great throws. He made some poor throws. He made some decisions we'll have to question on tape."
It's time for Griffin to stop making erroneous reads, holding the ball too long, and taking drive-stalling sacks. Worst of all was the interception that led to seven points for the Vikings just before halftime. That was a mistake so elemental – throwing inside on a out-breaking route in his own territory – that Gruden couldn't help but openly criticize it.
"That can never happen," the coach said.
Last week Gruden said, very pointedly, that he wanted to see where Griffin was in "the whole process of playing quarterback." It's obvious that Griffin will out-train anyone; but the question is whether he recognizes and is willing to work at the things that can't be conquered with sheer physical work, the more precise, subtle mechanics and reads.
"Getting to the line of scrimmage, calling the plays, calling the runs the right way, dropping back, going through the progressions the right way … Let's see where he is from a mental standpoint," Gruden said.
These are things that Bridgewater did, even as Washington's defense sought to bait and entrap him. It's interesting to note that Minnesota offensive coordinator Norv Turner trusted him to throw 42 passes, an extraordinary number for a rookie. Bridgewater repaid the trust with 26 completions for 268 yards without a turnover, including four in a row on the winning drive. What's more, Bridgewater's recognition and audible to an off-tackle run made their two-point conversion work, and gave them a three-point lead.
Though not nearly the head-to-toe athlete Griffin is, Bridgewater has almost faultless footwork, sliding and picking his way around in the pocket without losing his mechanics, and always gets his shoulders square and into the right throwing motion no matter how chased he is. That allows him to make big plays instead of big mistakes. His combination of recognition, mechanics and composure make him difficult to sack – which means he has the ability to make teams pay. Gruden was frustrated to the point of sputtering at Washington's inability to pressure him.
"I can't believe it," he said. "We got them in third-and-longs. Had a guy standing back there for 10 minutes to pass."
It only seemed that way, because Bridgewater was so effective. In the last minute of halves this season, Bridgewater has completed 15 of 22 passes for 196 yards with four field goals and a touchdown.
It's impossible to know whether Gruden was truly in favor of starting Griffin, or would have preferred McCoy, or whether players felt the same, as ESPN reported.
"Honestly it's not my decision," DeSean Jackson said. "RGIII has been our quarterback for a long time since I've been here. He's their guy, and I feel comfortable and confident with him back there."
But given Griffin's 13-19 record as a starter and the fact that he's won just four games since 2012, at some point Washington's decision makers have to admit that he has stopped improving. Part of the reason is because he took his job as starter as a birthright. He's a terrific athlete with all kinds of gifts, who excels in the training room, but he needs to excel in the film room too. There's a lot he still doesn't know about being a franchise quarterback – the most important being just how much he has to learn.
Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org