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SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

Robert Griffin III should take safer option

Redskins' rookie quarterback is exciting, but he won't last long taking hits like a running back, three Hall of Famers say.

Sam Farmer

9:27 PM CST, December 6, 2012

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Not only has Robert Griffin III pumped life back into the Washington Redskins, but the rookie quarterback is arguably the most exciting player in the NFL.

His Redskins jersey and cleats were sent to the Pro Football Hall of Fame this week, as he has already broken Cam Newton's record for most yards rushing by a first-year quarterback.

As for the read-option offense he's running in Washington? Enjoy it while it lasts.

Three quarterbacks who have busts in Canton, each of whom has been duly impressed by Griffin this season, say that read-option offense — as effective as it has been — isn't sustainable over the long haul. The Washington star needs to start sliding and running out of bounds more to protect his body.

"Yeah, it's the element of surprise right now, but you're going to get teams that say, 'Who cares about the dive back, go directly at RG. Even if he doesn't have the football, and he's riding the guy? Hit him anyway,'" said Jim Kelly, Hall of Famer for the Buffalo Bills. "I would do that if I was the defensive coach. I would say, 'If he's going to run the option, make him pay for it.'

"This is not a league for a quarterback to want to run the football. Look at Michael Vick. The guy is one of the greatest athletes to ever play that position. Sooner or later, you're going to get hit a couple times too many, and all of a sudden you're going to start getting gun-shy."

Kelly and Griffin spent time together at the Davey O'Brien Awards last year, when Griffin won the National Quarterback Award, and Kelly received the Legends Award.

"He's just a great character kid," Kelly said. "His background, I got to meet his parents, and just knowing what type of work ethic he has … Right now that offense is a big asset for them. But I don't think that's an offense that you're going to see a lot in the future, because it puts a lot of pressure on the quarterback in the running game. I'd be a little more worried than anything."

John Elway took his fair share of hits as a scrambling threat for the Denver Broncos, including the iconic helicopter twirl in the Super Bowl. But he said he got smarter about avoiding collisions as the years passed.

"It was a weapon for me to be able to move around and make plays outside the pocket," Elway said. "But obviously as time goes by, your physical skills diminish a little bit, especially your ability to run and run fast and escape. That's what kind of naturally slows things down as far as the amount that you run.

"It's about being able to get down, get out of bounds, and not take the extra punishment. But I've always said, especially when I was running around, that sometimes it's safer outside the pocket than it is inside the pocket."

Elway won two Super Bowls with Mike Shanahan as coach, and he believes Shanahan is an ideal fit for Griffin in Washington, a coach who can tailor an offense to best take advantage of the quarterback's phenomenal skills.

Said Elway: "When I saw Robert going to Washington, I thought, 'I'm happy for Robert and everything that was so positive that was said about him coming out of college, that he was going to be able to go into a situation with a coach that was going to take advantage of his strengths.' That's what we're seeing now."

Griffin is a far cry from a typical running quarterback. He has completed 67.1% of his passes for 2,660 yards with 17 touchdowns and four interceptions. He's wickedly effective with his arm and his feet, allowing him to run for 714 yards and six touchdowns.

Steve Young ran for 4,239 yards in his 15-year NFL career, but it wasn't often that those plays were designed for him to run.

"Even at the end of my career, I was running for 30, 40, 50 yards a game sometimes," said Young, who started his career with two years in Tampa Bay before spending 13 in San Francisco. "So it's not like you can't do it. It's just that I didn't call that out of the huddle with the odds you're going to end up carrying the football. Scrambling, when no one's around, getting down, getting out of bounds, taking a glancing blow, those are all fine. You can do that all day long. But when you're actually running the ball as if you're a running back, you can't do that.

"People always said to me, 'You would have been a great running back.' No, I wouldn't. I'd be horrible. Because running backs actually line up and take the ball into the line … I ran when no one was around."

That said, Young believes the Redskins' "pistol" offense is an ideal blend of what worked for Griffin in college and what will work in the pros.

"It's a perfect bridge for getting to the other side," said Young, now an ESPN analyst who had an up-close look at Griffin during Washington's victory over the New York Giants on Monday. "If you're playing for 10 or 15 years, you can't every week run six option plays. It can be around. It can be a part of the game, but sooner or later you've got to deliver the ball from the pocket. That's the game. Now, if the game changes, and it's proven a championship can be won from the pistol spread, then I'm wrong.

"But until I'm proven wrong, it's definitely a great way to win some games, especially from the red zone. For young quarterbacks who are mobile, it keeps them on the field and being very productive."

Young's lament? He didn't have the same pistol offense as a young player.

"If I had the pistol as a rookie, now that would have been different," he said. "Even in Tampa Bay I could have done something with that pistol. That's a neat thing. I wish that was around."

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesfarmer