Redskins offense an intricate show

WASHINGTON - On the replay it looks so rhythmic - nearly a dozen individual instruments, each with individual assignments and tones, combining to make something beautiful.

Late in the first quarter on Dec. 3, Washington Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan called an option play in a critical home game against the New York Giants. With quarterback Robert Griffin III, the option - which gives Griffin a series of choices to make on the fly - is always a possibility. The problem for defenses is that Griffin's talents and Shanahan's creativity mean that alternatives are just as likely.

Shanahan's offense relies on a group of players flawlessly executing a combination of roles, but its heartbeat is misdirection and deception - eyes here and the action over there - in football's version of three-card monte. It is an offense that has captured the NFL's attention.

"Any time you have set rules in place for a certain concept," Shanahan said, "whether it's a run play or a pass play, once your players get that concept down and the number counts and where you're going and how to target people, then the motions and all the other stuff really just make it an illusion."

Redskins wide receiver Josh Morgan said that each play can be run "30, 40, maybe 50 different ways," depending on the formation, pre-snap motion and whether there will be a play fake - one of Shanahan's favorite tools and one of Griffin's most underrated skills.

Against the Giants, the Redskins pulled out all the tricks. The winner, as it turned out, would take the NFC East title; the loser would miss the playoffs.

On second-down-and-two, Griffin lined up in the pistol formation and sent Morgan in motion from the slot to the backfield.

During offseason practices, confusion was king. Kyle Shanahan was installing a new offense, and regardless of how familiar he told them it would someday be, players felt trapped in a mental net.

Shanahan had studied zone-read offenses run by other NFL teams. He had added to the zone offense he'd learned from his father, Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan, and honed as a young coordinator with the Houston Texans. Kyle Shanahan spent long nights at the team facility, watching film and jotting notes - not about what the offenses were running, but how defenses were trying to stop it.

"What is the defense doing? What are they adjusting? What are they doing on film that the opposing team does the next week? And can this last?" Shanahan said earlier this season. "A lot of stuff you see, it won't last. You've got to eventually put wrinkles off of it."

This was the key to success, he said: "Making defenses defend everything."

When he understood it, the next step was teaching Griffin.

"They didn't baby me," Griffin said. "They weren't going to make it baby steps; they threw everything at me."

Griffin took the snap, planted his right foot and extended the ball toward running back Alfred Morris. "It all starts with that first step," Redskins quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur said, as he watched video of a play from the third quarter of last Sunday's win against the Dallas Cowboys.

Morris had taken a step to his left before running forward and raising his arms.

"The first thing you see," LaFleur said of Griffin, "he gets on the right path."

Dallas defenders leaned forward and moved to their right, reading Griffin's path and reacting to it. Then the ball was gone. In about a second, the Cowboys found themselves off balance. As they hurried to correct themselves, Griffin planted and found wide receiver Pierre Garcon running across the middle for an 18-yard gain.

Griffin has mastered the play-action fake. His passer rating after play fakes is 116.2, more than 22 points better than when there's no fake. Just as important, though, is that it's another way to force defenders to guess. Of Morris's 335 rushing attempts, more than 52 percent have come from the shotgun formation - again, the highest percentage in the league. Translation: When the Redskins show pass, they're just as likely to run, and they lead the league in rushing with 169.3 yards per game.

"When he doesn't have the ball, he's running like he does," Redskins defensive lineman Kedric Golston said. "And the running back is running like he does, and the receivers are doing everything like they have the ball."

On Dec. 3 against the Giants, Morgan stopped in the backfield. A moment later, Griffin took the snap from the pistol formation and faked to Morris, holding the ball until the last instant. Offensive linemen blocked as if Morris would be running up the middle. Two of New York's three linebackers raced to tackle Morris; by then, Griffin was already running to his left.

"If you're not on top of your game, he's already turned the corner on you," Riley said.

All but two defenders had been neutralized by the formation, pre-snap movement and the fake to Morris. Young hurried over to block defensive end Osi Umenyiora and then linebacker Michael Boley. He didn't see Griffin sprint past Umenyiora and then cut back toward the middle of the field.

Morgan, meanwhile, was yelling for Griffin to lateral the ball.

"Yelling, 'Pitch it!' the whole time," Morgan recalled.

Griffin ran 16 yards before colliding with Giants defensive back Stevie Brown. The ball popped upward, landing in Morgan's hands - "about time," he remembered thinking - and Morgan ran past a final group of stunned defenders and into the end zone.

It was chaos, for everyone not wearing burgundy. It has been like this for seven weeks, maybe a few more.

"It was really supposed to happen that way," Morgan said with a smile.

When you're in on the trick's secrets, nothing surprises you any more.