Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Doomed Reprogramming Of Robert Griffin III

Appeared on in August 2014

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Robert Griffin III was a comet scorching across the football sky in 2012. His unprecedented combination of running and passing could have made hybrids cool. Why no auto manufacturer signed him for an ad campaign I’ll never know (goodness knows he would have been willing). Griffin’s talent was so overwhelming and his success so intoxicating that former head coach Mike Shanahan literally pushed his quarterback until he broke down on the field like a Thoroughbred collapsing on the front stretch at Churchill Downs. The fallout cost Shanahan his job, robbed Griffin of his athleticism in 2013, put his career in peril and shoved everyone’s nose into this unfortunate fact: regular forays by quarterbacks into the teeth of NFL defenses isn’t sustainable.

With that lesson hard-learned in D.C., Jay Gruden was tapped as head coach and entrusted with this task: reconfigure Griffin’s game with a heavy emphasis on pocket-dwelling and just a dash of designed runs. In other words, keep him upright and give him a fair shot at health and a puncher’s chance of a career longer than the average running back.  It is absolutely the right thing to do, no matter how good Griffin is when he’s in hero/crash-test-dummy mode. The problem is converting a quarterback that has always relied on his legs to buy time, to stay out of trouble and to rescue the team from bad plays, into a defense-diagnosing dynamo and a pocket-dominant passer is unprecedented. Kordell Stewart never got close. Michael Vick never found the magic balance. Randall Cunningham had some pocket success late in his career, but he was throwing to Randy Moss and Cris Carter. Jeff George was decent with Moss and Carter. Steve Young always had pocket ability; running was his Plan B. And what of popular Griffin critic Donovan McNabb? Despite spending over a decade under Andy Reid’s tutelage, McNabb never figured out how to stand in the pocket and consistently deliver accurate balls. When you can’t do that in the NFL, and injuries and age rob you of athleticism, you end up unemployed, grumpy and largely forgotten by age 35.

This evidence isn’t presented to foretell only a gloomy future for Griffin. There is hope. He is but 24 years old and is, by all accounts, willing and committed to being a little more Peyton Manning and a little less Vick. A gory web of knee scars and a close relationship with the country’s most renowned orthopedic surgeon will inspire new thought processes and change. But Griffin is attempting an arduous reboot that has broken the will of many men and the early returns from ‘Skins training camp have been discouraging. That’s to be expected to some extent. NFL quarterback is a terribly complex position and Griffin, in addition to relearning how to play behind center, is adjusting to a new coach and a new system. Give the kid time. I hear Axl Rose’s gravely voice imploring, “All we need is just a little patience.” 

Is it all we need, my leather-clad, tattooed crooner?

Ponder this “patience is overrated” data. Dan Marino, John Elway and Jim Kelly played in the Super Bowl after their second, fourth and fifth seasons, respectively. Joe Montana was a third-year pro when he and Dwight Clark hooked up for “The Catch” the NFC Championship Game and the 49ers beat Cincinnati in Super Bowl XVI. Troy Aikman earned his first ring after his fourth season.   

And what about the elite quarterbacks – Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady – in the game today? Manning has been dominant since his second season. Rodgers made Green Bay’s transition from Brett Favre seamless, if not latent. Brady stepped in for an injured Drew Bledsoe early in his second season and led the Patriots to a championship. Brees is the only one where there is a discernable career progression or hint of a learning curve. But was that more Brees just “getting it” and going from good to great or the product of Sean Payton rescuing Brees from the stifling offensive philosophy of Marty Schottenheimer?  My money is on Payton, the Marty-ball antidote. 

This evidence suggests that great quarterbacks aren’t developed, they just are or they are not, almost immediately. It also indicates that you don’t learn to be a pocket passer at the NFL level; it is a skill set you arrive with on draft day, hone for a year or two and dominate with for the next decade. Griffin is attempting to rewire his football instincts and learn new skills at the highest level of his profession. For his entire life, his reaction to pocket traffic has been to avert his eyes from the developing pass patterns, focus on the rushers and look for an escape. Now, after two ACL injuries, he’s being asked to trust his receivers, the protection and the scheme, and to bravely deliver seeds down the field fractions of a second before the pocket collapses. Instead of running read-option and “call it, run it” plays, he will be expected, presumably, to diagnose defenses pre-snap, alter plays at the line and, counter to his impulse to run, rifle through his progressions. Scrambling, an ability that enabled him to win him a Heisman Trophy and the 2012 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award, should only occur if everything else fails. Sounds simple, eh? Like flipping a switch? Is your Robert Griffin III glass still half full?

Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that Griffin is going to go the way of Tim Couch, David Carr, Akili Smith and so many other quarterback busts. Griffin can play quarterback in the NFL. He has all the mental and physical tools. What I am saying is that by asking Griffin to play differently and to limit the usage of his X-factor athleticism, you are lowering his ceiling. It is like ripping the burly V-8 out of a Boss 302 Mustang and dropping in a polite six-cylinder. It increases the chances of the car staying on the road, but the fun-factor plummets.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King said that it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer and that it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a competent writer.  But (as if to offer some flicker of hope), he did say that competent writers could become good writers if they are prepared to work their derrieres off. His prognosis for aspiring scribes is eerily prophetic for quarterbacks. Griffin’s shot at greatness was predicated on the constant threat his athleticism presented. In 2012 defenses played him on their heels. Last year, absent that electric burst, they played him on their toes and downhill. The results were dramatically different. Now Griffin is attempting to adjust to his injuries and the violence of NFL football by playing more from the pocket. It is a place where he currently performs competently. One day, he may even be good. But he almost certainly will never be a great pocket passer. And when you trade three first round picks for a player, you’re seeking greatness. 

1 comment:

  1. Sadly, I believe the experiment is over. This bitter pill will be easier to swallow if an NFL team decides to utilize RGIII as a backup. I think he can be a suitable off the bench NFL QB, and his ability to distract with his Twitter brain droppings will also be easier to absorb as a sub.