In 2011, Cam Newton not only had perhaps the best rookie season any NFL quarterback has ever enjoyed, he also came out of the blocks as no signal-caller ever had before. He threw for 422 yards on 24 completions in his NFL debut against the Arizona Cardinals on Sept. 11, and added 432 yards on 28 completions the next week against the world champion Green Bay Packers. That the Panthers lost both of those games was much more about the talent around Newton than the exploits of the quarterback himself, though the three picks he threw against the Packers showed that the NFL wasn't going to be a complete breeze after just one season of Division I football.
Through the 2011 season, though, Newton's ability to run the custom concepts put together by Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski and gobble up chapters of an NFL playbook on a week-to-week basis showed in a hundred little ways. Carolina became the team that no run defense wanted to deal with -- similar to the Dun/Vick/Duckett Atlanta Falcons of the mid-2000s that led the league in rushing every year from 2004 through 2006, the Panthers posed a series of impossible problems. It was hard enough keying in on backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, but with the addition of Newton's ability to run the read-option to perfection, any answer given was probably wrong. Steve Smith's career, thought to be done the previous year, was completely resuscitated with Newton's help.
When discussing the future of Robert Griffin III, who signed his rookie deal with the Washington Redskins on Wednesday morning, the work that Chudzinski and the Panthers' staff put in should be extremely instructive. Not only did Chudzinski set things up in ways that would allow Newton to make more traditional NFL plays from the pocket, but his willingness to weld the playbook Newton had at Auburn in 2010 showed impressive flexibility and open-mindedness that paid big dividends every Sunday in 2011.
"If you go back and look at the things we did offensively and the different types of pass plays off of play-action, drop-back passes, [it was] then incorporating some of the spread offense that he was used to seeing," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said at the 2012 scouting combine. "Our coaches went back and studied some of the Auburn things and looked at that and adapted that to our playbook."
No longer were NFL coaches dealing inflexibly with spread offense quarterbacks in ways that caused stunted development for players like Alex Smith and Michael Vick -- now, the idea is to bring what the quarterback can do, and what he should do, together as an organic whole. It helps that the NFL has taken great strides in the last half-decade to meet spread offense concepts halfway -- specifically in the higher percentage of shotgun snaps and tight ends detached from the formation -- but credit should be given to coaches like Chudzinski and Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, who willingly and helpfully went back to the future with Tim Tebow's old Florida playbook when Tebow became Denver's starter.
One of the things that was so important to Newton's development as the Panthers' starting quarterback was that he was named the starter very early in the process. So much for the myth of a quarterback competition between Newton and Jimmy Clausen -- as if anyone could drawl that one out with a straight face in the first place. As Rivera said back in February, giving your system-switching quarterback all the practice reps possible isn't just a good plan -- it's the only way to go. Mike Shanahan similarly named Griffin his starter soon after the Redskins' first rookie minicamp of 2012, which got everybody on the same track.
"We're going to put him with the first team when we come back … We'll have our first team on one field, working against our second defense, and we'll have our second team on the other field, working against our first defense," Shanahan said in early May. "I thought it very important to start with Robert with our first unit. He's able to do it and pick up the system as quick as he has, which is always good, to go out there and be able to call plays and feel good with what you're doing, and I've seen that over the last five practices."
The next step was to get Griffin working with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan on the differences between Washington's West Coast offense and Baylor's multi-read spread -- not just the new play concepts, but changes in play-calling verbiage. Griffin ran a three-digit system in college, so imagine 250 different iterations of the adjustment from "337 Roll Right Z Comeback" to "Double Wing Right 2 Jet X Over." Griffin is as smart as any quarterback to come down the pike in recent years, but it's still a big adjustment.
Of course, Shanahan has a little bit of experience coaching mobile quarterbacks. He's most famous for helping John Elway win two Super Bowls late in his career, and if you look at the offenses Shanahan put together for Jake Plummer in Denver from 2003 through 2006 has some aspects of what the Redskins might be planning for RGIII. Plummer was mobile in a spread sense -- through he was erratic at times, he was also very comfortable with bailout plays and designed runs. As a result, Shanahan isn't going to simply throw Griffin a playbook and tell him to learn it. Once again, the coach will meet the quarterback halfway.
"Mike Shanahan has said that he is going to tailor the playbook to what Robert Griffin does well," Rich Campbell of the Washington Times told the NFL Network on Wednesday. "It's going to be rollouts and keepers; probably not as much throwing from the pocket until he gets comfortable reading NFL defenses. If they run the bootlegs and keepers a lot, they can kind of simplify his reads a little bit and make it easier on him to start the decision-making process. Mike Shanahan teams always run the ball a lot, so it's going to be really important to get a guy like Tim Hightower healthy. Roy Helu and Evan Royster had productive rookie seasons at running back. So with the running game, and Robert Griffin's ability to get outside with some of that speed, they could have a pretty decent offense."
Pretty decent, indeed. And if it's better than decent right away, you can credit a meeting of the minds that has to happen in the modern NFL.
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