The 2012 NFL season may have given us more impressive performances by first-year starting quarterbacks than any previous season in the league's long history. Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, and Colin Kaepernick all took their teams at either the start of the season, or at crucial times down the stretch, and redefined their offenses to a historic degree. Luck took the Indianapolis Colts, 2011's worst team, to the playoffs, and he was anything but a "game manager." He attempted more deep passes and took more pressure than any other quarterback. Griffin cost the Washington Redskins first-round draft picks in the next two years, but he proved to be worth that price when he took his team's formerly moribund offense into the vanguard of the NFL's new option attacks.
Russell Wilson wasn't expected to start when he was drafted -- that's what happens to a third-round pick who was dinked by front offices because of his height -- but he had a similarly transformative effect on the Seattle Seahawks' offense, and tied Peyton Manning's rookie record for touchdown passes while bailing out of the pocket more often than anyone else at his position. And Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers took his team to the verge of a Super Bowl win in his 10th professional start (yes, dear commenters, we do know that he was not a rookie in 2012 ... but he was a first-year starter), with an offense that turned out to be uniquely and perfectly suited to his strengths.
Four young men who have done the unexpected, and raised the level of expectation for rookie quarterbacks to a ridiculous degree. Now that their performances are in the books, however, all four of them are facing the same tough question:
What do you do for an encore? We've explored how Luck's second season might be different -- now, let's go under the hood with Mr. Griffin and see what might change in 2013.
The Comeback Kid
The effect that Robert Griffin had on the Washington Redskins in his rookie season can be summed up with one question: How many rookies in NFL history have had an entire offense tailored to their specific attributes? Because, make no mistake, what Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan put on the field in 2012 didn't resemble anything we'd ever seen from the storied Washington franchise, and it didn't really look much like anything else we'd seen in pro football ... well, ever.
Last regular season, per Football Outsiders' game-charting metrics, Washington ran the Pistol formation 320 times, more than all other NFL teams combined. The Shanahans augmented that short shotgun, multi-back look with a dizzying array of tight end sets and motions that kept every opposing defense on its heels. Mix in Griffin's demon speed and freakish deep accuracy, and you had something that was just about unstoppable when it was humming. The knee injuries Griffin suffered in his rookie season had some spinning the narrative that this was another gimmick quarterback who was about to get his comeuppance at the hands of the NFL, but that's a grossly inaccurate oversimplification. Griffin didn't complete 72.4 percent of his passes and lead the NCAA in yards per attempt at Baylor in 2011 because he was the beneficiary of a few splash plays. Whether he was throwing a deep post to Kendall Wright at Baylor or rocking the New Orleans Saints with a drag route to Pierre Garcon in his professional debut, Griffin had to impress anyone who actually watched tape of him playing the position.
And that's what makes Griffin truly dangerous as a quarterback: If the Shanahans do decide to either scrap or alter their overall game plan for Griffin to make him more of a pocket passer and less a shotgun runner, Griffin's first-year numbers indicate that he's already well on his way to success with that idea. In 2012, no quarterback had a higher DVOA (FO's opponent-adjusted per-play efficiency metric) than Griffin when he was under center. In other words, when you take away the collegiate conceits and are left with Griffin just as a pure quarterback -- scanning his reads and dissecting defenses -- he's just as good as any young signal-caller we've seen come down the pike.
Does Mike Shanahan need to rein Griffin in from a mobility perspective to keep him healthy? For all the talk about Griffin's alleged vulnerability under pressure, the hits that caused and then exacerbated his knee injury were examples of a relatively low sample size. Especially for a mobile quarterback, Griffin was surprisingly adept at eluding pressure as a pure passer. He ranked eighth in the league among qualifying quarterbacks in the percentage of plays (23.7%) in which he had to deal with pressure, including sacks and scrambles. And his 112 plays under pressure tied him with Matt Schaub for 14th among quarterbacks. Andrew Luck, the player Griffin will be tied to for the rest of his career, led the league with 187 plays in which he experienced pressure. And you don't hear many people talking about how Luck needs to rein it in. Griffin's primary issue seems to be his inability to know when to take a pass on contact and live to fight another day, so to speak. That's seen as a positive trait, and nobody would dare question Griffin's competitiveness after he played through obvious pain in the Redskins' playoff loss to Seattle, but there are ways Griffin can straddle a line between killer athleticism and prudent game (and risk) management.
Alfred Morris was the sixth-round rookie undercard to Griffin's stardom, but Morris and Griffin worked hand-in-hand from the start. Just as Morris benefitted to an extreme degree from Washington's offensive setup, Griffin exploded even more when play action was a part of hs arsenal. Again per FO, the Redskins ran play action 42 percent of the time in 2012, and they were by far the NFL's most successful team when they did so. They gained 10.3 yards per play in play action situations, and just 5.5 without. Washington's Offensive DVOA was a league-leading 66.7% in play action, and a very pedestrian 5.0% without.
There are a few reasons for this. Griffin's track speed makes every playfake an unwanted adventure for defenders, because he's so good at not just selling the fake, but also the option mesh point that could ostensibly lead to another runner or target in the mix. And because Pistol formations lead to more and different play action opportunities, defenses are dealing with multiple dimensions they're not really used to when facing offenses like this. We saw the same thing from the San Francisco 49ers last season, but nobody did option play action quite like the Redskins, because nobody had a base weapon quite like RG3.
So, going into the second year of the grand Griffin experiment, it's worth wondering if anything will change from a schematic standpoint. Mike Shanahan has said that he wants Griffin to put himself in fewer dangerous situations, but his son is fairly defiant about retaining all aspects of Griffin's game.
"The zone-read is something I feel, in the long run, helps the quarterback," Kyle Shanahan said in June. "The quarterback's only going to run if there's no one there to hit him. If there is someone there to hit him, he's going to hand it off. I think the zone-read stuff is the least of where he got hit. The three injuries were pass plays. They weren't zone-read plays."
True, but when there is a precedent, and the possibility of further injury is out there, what does one do? It would seem that a new emphasis on throwing the ball away when a play is over would be a good compromise, and Griffin could use a bit more help from an inconsistent and oft-injured receiver corps. But there is certainly a large element of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" to Griffin's game, and he and the Redskins will have to balance that risk with a reward that could be even more spectacular down the road.