Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III would seem to be the kind of quarterback Chiefs inside linebacker Derrick Johnson would love to face.
Or maybe not.
“Not really,” said Johnson, the Chiefs’ leading tackler. “Any quarterback who can run, you get less sleep because you take away one thing and they can do another.”
“He’s a Waco guy, and I’m a Waco guy,” Johnson said of Griffin, the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner from Baylor who will lead Washington against the Chiefs on Sunday. “So it will be a good matchup.”
Johnson, who grew up in Waco but was the 2004 Butkus Award winner at Texas, will be the primary spy in passing situations where Griffin is doubly dangerous as a runner, having rushed for 460 yards, most among NFL quarterbacks, as well as having thrown for 3,039 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Johnson, a two-time Pro Bowler, is the first defender Griffin noticed when he studied the Chiefs’ defense.
“Oh yeah,” Griffin said Wednesday. “He’s a playmaker; he’s been a playmaker for a long time. He’s a guy I heard about as I was coming through the ranks as well. But by no means has his level of play decreased at all. He’s a baller.”
As a rookie, Griffin’s spectacular play keyed Washington’s turnaround from a last-place finish in 2011 to an NFC East title in 2012, a feat the Chiefs are trying to pull in the AFC West this season.
Griffin, the second player taken in the 2012 draft, completed 66 percent of his passes with 20 touchdowns, five interceptions, set NFL rookie records for passer rating (102.4) and rushing yards (815) for a quarterback and was voted Rookie of the Year during Washington’s 10-6 season.
However, Griffin’s rookie season ended in controversy in a playoff loss to Seattle after severely injuring his right knee. Griffin needed major surgery to repair the ACL and LCL and missed all of the offseason work and preseason games.
He opened the season as Washington’s starter, but the club started 0-3, fueling speculation that Griffin wasn’t 100 percent. Washington, 3-9, never recovered and was one of the first teams eliminated from playoff contention.
Washington coach Mike Shanahan has taken a lot of heat for playing Griffin so early but said team doctors cleared him to play.
“They said he was healthy,” Shanahan said. “Anytime your doctors say a player is ready to go, he’s full speed, there’s no chance of injury, you play him.”
The rust, however, was evident.
“Anytime you miss 10 weeks of the offseason, it’s tough on anybody, and for a quarterback coming into his second year, it’s hard to do that,” Shanahan said. “Coming off such a great first year puts even more pressure on him. But you’ve got (surgery), you’ve got rehab. The second year is usually the biggest one for growth and when you don’t have that, there are going to be some growing pains.”
Griffin won’t use the excuse that he came back too soon as a factor in Washington’s disappointing season.
“I feel great today,” Griffin said. “I came back because I worked my tail off during the offseason, and God blessed me to be healthy.
“It’s been a frustrating year for our team, and it all comes back to me, and I understand that. I’m more frustrated and disappointed with the way we have played because we’re not a 3-9 football team, and it’s our job to go out there and prove that.”
That’s what Johnson is worried about.
“You see glimpses and flashes of what he did last year,” Johnson said. “He hasn’t had as much success as last year, but we’re not going to go there thinking this is not the same RGIII, because he can light you up.”
Now that Washington is eliminated from the playoffs, some have suggested that Griffin and the team would be better served if he sat out the final four games in favor of backup Kirk Cousins, making sure Griffin is 100 percent for next year.
But if Shanahan holds Griffin out, and the team finishes 3-13, he could be preserving Griffin for the next head coach.
“We’re going to try and play our best players,” Shanahan said. “We’re always going to try to win. We’re not trying to evaluate people the last four weeks. If they are your best players or somebody goes down, you play those people, but if you don’t play to win every game, you’re sending the wrong message to your football team.”