February 24, 2011
Assessing 2011's field generals, in no particular order. Today: Baylor sophomore Robert Griffin.
• Typecasting. Somewhere on the list, Griffin is one of the most explosive, productive players in Baylor history. Also on the list: He was born in Japan, set Texas high school track records in the 110 and 300-meter hurdles, graduated high school early to enroll at Baylor at age 17, won a Big 12 championship in the 400-meter hurdles shortly after arriving on campus, graduated in three years with a degree in political science, made the honor roll in six straight semesters and plans to attend law school. Just your run-of-the-mill Army brat.
And then, yes, he's one of the most explosive, productive players in Baylor history. Griffin reportedly had offers from Nebraska and Tennessee, among others (see below), where his speed and 6-foot-3 frame likely would have made him a wide receiver. Instead, he latched on to the chance to play quarterback in Art Briles' spread attack at Houston, and followed Briles to Waco – about an hour from Griffin's high school – when he took the top job at Baylor in November 2007. Griffin took over in the second quarter of his first game and immediately established himself as the focal point of the Bears' attack, as a runner and passer.
• At his best… The first hint Griffin was going to be better than "a track guy" with limited utility in the shotgun was the 346-yard, three-touchdown bomb he dropped on Washington State in September 2008, en route to the school's single-game rushing record and most impressive victory in years:
We were only beginning to grasp at the time just how wretched Washington State's defense would turn out to be, but Griffin's athleticism was no mirage: The offense increasingly revolved around his legs in the biggest games, in which Griffin went over 100 yards on the ground against Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas, and came up one yard shy of the century mark in a near upset at 10-1 Texas Tech to close the regular season. He ended his freshman campaign with 1,118 yards rushing before sacks, most by any Bear back since 2003, and 13 touchdowns, tying the school record.
But while Griffin avoided mistakes – he went nine games and more than 209 attempts (another school record) before throwing his first interception – he was also clearly limited as a passer: In the four conference games in which he cracked 100 yards on the ground, he averaged just 93 through the air, and the Bears lost all four.
As dynamic as he was as a freshman, Griffin slowly chipped away at his reputation as a one-dimensional threat last year – partly because he was coming off a severe knee injury that cost him almost all of his sophomore season in 2009, and partly because he'd developed into one of the more reliable passers in the conference, in one of the most reliably pass-happy systems. Griffin put the ball in the air 35 times per game in 2010, distributing it among five different receivers who brought in at least 40 receptions and shattering single-season school records for total completions, completion percentage, total yards and yards per game. He also became Baylor's career leader in passing yards and TDs in the process, in essentially his second year as a starter.
Not coincidentally, Baylor scored at least 30 points in nine different games, averaged more than 30 for the first time since the formation of the Big 12, set a new school record for total offense, beat Texas for the first time since '94 and snapped a 16-year bowl drought despite continuing to field one of the conference's most porous defenses. Oh, and Griffin netted over 600 yards rushing, too, keeping him on pace with the most prolific players in the country in terms of total offense. With apologies to Denard Robinson and Colin Kaepernick, there may not have been a more complete quarterback this side of Cam Newton.
• At his worst… In all, Griffin personally accounted for about two-thirds of Baylor's total offense as a runner of passer (66.9 percent, to be exact), and their fates were inexorably tied: When the quarterback struggled, the whole operation ground to a halt, which it frequently did against even mediocre defenses.
In five games against defenses that ranked in the top half of all defenses nationally – that is, ranked in the top 60, not exactly an elite gauntlet – Griffin's efficiency plummeted and the Bears averaged about 15 fewer points than they managed against defenses in the bottom half. TCU, owner of the No. 1 defense in the country, harassed Griffin into a season-low 185 total yards with three sacks in a 45-10 laugher in September; eventual Big 12 champ Oklahoma held him to 207 yards in a 53-24 rout in November, the second of a three-game losing streak against respectable defenses to close the year.
• Fun Fact. Griffin's not the first Baylor quarterback to beat Texas, but he's certainly the first in recent memory that Longhorn fans have ever actively wished they had in their huddle. UT might have had him, too, if it had shown more of a personal touch:
"Texas did not recruit me as a quarterback," Griffin said [before last October's game in Austin]. "But they walked into my (high school) coach's office and placed an offer on the table as an 'athlete,' then walked out, so I never saw them."
"That's Texas for you," Griffin said. "But they get talent from anywhere they want.
"If they put an offer on the table and you don't accept it, they'll go find some other guy."
Griffin didn't see the snub as a sign of disrespect, necessarily – more like disinterest, because he didn't attend any of the Longhorns' camps for prospects. "I felt like my game tapes did the talking for me, and I didn't have to go prove it." It's not bragging if it's true.
• What to expect in the fall. Griffin already holds every relevant school record with two years of eligibility still in front of him, and has enough tomato cans on the front end of the schedule to get off to another roaring start after the daunting opener against TCU. His continued progress as a passer in an extremely passer-friendly system should more than overcome the half-step he seems to have sacrificed through the knee injury and the addition of some 25 pounds since arriving on campus. If you're looking for a fantasy quarterback, the final numbers should easily put him back in the running for an all-conference nod at the end of the year.
With a ninth Big 12 game (in this case, Missouri) replacing a gimme non-conference gimme, though, getting back above .500 is going to require huge games from Griffin to outscore at least two of the old South Division rivals that resisted Baylor's rise last year – specifically, that means Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Texas Tech, all of which beat the Bears by at least a touchdown, not to mention Texas, which hasn't lost back-to-back games to Baylor in 20 years. If Griffin's healthy, the offense should surpass the 2010 edition on the stat sheet; if it matches last year's win total against the tougher schedule, someone should invent an MVP award just to award it to him.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.