From Cam to RGIII, and the weird psychology of draft analysis

If there's one undeniable fact people hopefully learned from Cam Newton's rookie season, it's that the NFL has morphed into something that will allow a quarterback who played nothing but two-digit spread offense in college to succeed wildly at the next level in a pretty big hurry. Newton's historic performances for the Carolina Panthers stood in especially sharp relief after a pre-draft process that had a lot of people picking him apart in ways that went beyond the football field.

The selective bias was especially troubling because it happened at the same time so many were praising the game intelligence of TCU's Andy Dalton, who played his entire collegiate career in a single-read spread not unlike the one Newton thrived in at Auburn. Look at a picture of Newton next to Dalton and it isn't tough to figure out where that came from.

In any case, things appear to be different (at least for now) in the case of Baylor superstar quarterback Robert Griffin III, who wants to be a lawyer someday and has shown nothing but intelligence and humility in his dealings with the media. Griffin may, in fact, actually sidestep the sometimes bizarre scrutiny Newton was subjected to before the 2011 Draft.

Remember this?

Very disingenuous — has a fake smile, comes off as very scripted and has a selfish, me-first makeup. Always knows where the cameras are and plays to them. Has an enormous ego with a sense of entitlement that continually invites trouble and makes him believe he is above the law — does not command respect from teammates and always will struggle to win a locker room. Only a one-year producer. Lacks accountability, focus and trustworthiness — is not punctual, seeks shortcuts and sets a bad example. Immature and has had issues with authority. Not dependable...

Can provide an initial spark, but will quickly be dissected and contained by NFL defensive coordinators, struggle to sustain success and will not prove worthy of an early investment. An overhyped, high-risk, high-reward selection with a glaring bust factor, Newton is sure to be drafted more highly than he should and could foreclose a risk-taking GM's job and taint a locker room.

Huh. Considering that Newton set a host of rookie records with Steve Smith as his only real weapon and Legedu Naanee as his #2 receiver, that supposed drop-off is going to be a real mother. Or, perhaps people need to look beyond the surface when evaluating quarterbacks at this point in time?

And yes, I mean that just exactly the way you think I mean that.

On a Wednesday media conference call, draft analyst Mike Mayock of the NFL Network took several questions about Mr. Griffin, and as much as Mayock's projections of players deal more with actual tape analysis instead of dime-store psychology, the talk was about what Griffin can do on the field -- and why he should be a lead-pipe lock to go in the first three picks.

You're bringing up one of the most gifted kids in the last several years in this draft in Robert Griffin.  Is there some downside to Robert Griffin?  Yes, there is.  However, you probably have the  opportunity to move up and get him if you want him. To me, that is a pretty exciting proposition, to build your young franchise around maybe the  most exciting young player in this year's draft.

I think as an organization, you say to  yourself, what do you want to be?  You're probably  a little bit more -- with [free agent quarterback Matt] Flynn, you're probably a little bit more saying we think we know what we're  getting there, and it's a more conventional-style NFL attack.  Versus with Griffin, grab hold of the seat of your pants and we're going for a ride.

I love everything about the kid.  The question I have is that he doesn't throw with anticipation.  Mostly because he doesn't have to. In that offense, there is minimal foot work, and they spread it out so wide.  He's got some talented, gifted receivers, and he's got great touch and accuracy, medium and deep.  He's got arm strength.  He's got athletic ability.  He's tough. He takes hits.  But he doesn't anticipate throws.  He waits until they develop and then throws them.  Similar to what I said about [Texas A&M's Ryan] Tannehill earlier, similar thing.  Lot of college kids have it.

My only question for him is will he develop that?  You won't find that at the combine.  I think where you're going to find it is throughout the process when teams meet with this kid and they sit down and put the tape on and break the tape down, they talk football and ask him what he sees or doesn't see.  I think that's part of the process of learning how much a quarterback knows today, and how quickly he picks up what you're trying to teach him.

Bottom line, he's a playmaker.  That's what this league is all about at that position.

Now, when Mayock talks about Griffin's inability to throw with anticipation (i.e., to throw a receiver open in a pre-determined area), he's not talking about Griffin's football intelligence or lack thereof. He's speaking of Griffin's collegiate career as the product of a spread system in which the guideline is to throw to the open receiver, not to throw the receiver open. It's a much larger schematic switch than the slight change in verbiage would have you believe.

Tim Tebow's success with the Denver Broncos in 2011 was predicated to a large degree on plays that would get the first-read receiver open as quickly as possible. When teams adjusted to that notion, and closed that window, bad things happened. Tebow may be many things, but he ain't no dummy.

Quarterbacking in the NFL is a long and laborious process. For just about anyone.

Newton's playmaking ability in college, and the fact that he flashed so many of those same attributes and liabilities through his own pre-draft journey, make me wonder if the analysts who follow Mayock into the breach this year (starting with next week's scouting combine) will take his example and talk about what they see in Robert Griffin III, and what he sees on the field. That, please. Not the manufactured wordbarf of a guy in a room who feels the need to scrape the bottom of the barrel because he wants to get a leg up on the other guys in rooms writing the same amateur scouting reports.

I got to speak with Newton during Super Bowl week, and the only thing I'll say about his "character" is that I found him to be almost instantly defensive in facial expression and posture when I brought up his eventual mastery of Carolina's increasingly complicated playbook. Newton thought the question was going to go one way, and he relaxed only when he realized that I wasn't about to throw the same "How is it that YOU were able to succeed in the NFL" garbage his way. At this point, his gun-shy demeanor is perfectly understandable. I asked him about the stigma attached to so many quarterbacks, especially those who fit his physical characteristics, in the pre-draft process. What would he tell Robert Griffin III if he had five minutes to prep him for the experience?

"Coming into this league, you've got to mix the good with the bad. You're never going to be sold on somebody [some people will not be sold on you], and you're never going to be good enough for a particular critic. One thing I would tell him, and Andrew Luck, and all the other quarterbacks, would be to just stay sane throughout the madness. Some people are going to think that you're the world, and some people are going to think that you're under the world. With [Griffin], with what he did, and with the Heisman Trophy, what he did in college was unbelievable. I'm a big fan of a lot of those guys. But that transition has to upgrade to bigger and better things. Just coming into the league, you have to be compatible and you have to try and learn more. And be more."

Staying sane through the madness is possible, in part, relative to how sane the evaluators stay until Roger Goodell starts reading names off cards in the last week of April. In the meantime ... well, grab hold of the seat of your pants, Mr. Griffin. We're going for a ride.

This time, let's hope the road is paved.

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