Who's the quarterback of the future?
Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck just might be poised to redefine the position
Former NFL quarterbacks coach Terry Shea immediately perked up in his recliner while relaxing in his den this past Sunday. After spending a few hours watching the Kansas City Chiefs lose to the Atlanta Falcons, he was about to be treated to bonus coverage of the Washington-New Orleans game. Since Shea had spent the spring tutoring Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, he wanted to see how far his young pupil had come since their 10 weeks together. What Shea eventually witnessed caused a slight grin to curl across his face.
Even as the Saints chipped away at a 16-point deficit, RG3 didn't wilt in the midst of the raucous Superdome. His footwork remained impeccable, his attention to detail precise. If his nerves were going to fail him, that would've been the moment to sweat. Instead, the 22-year-old Griffin took only one sack during the fourth quarter of a 40-32 win. "The fourth quarter is when you want to see how a quarterback performs," Shea said. "That's when your elite quarterbacks separate from the ordinary ones."
It's way too early to elevate Griffin to such rarefied air, but his performance (19-of-26, 320 yards, two touchdowns) did turn plenty of heads around the NFL. While the first pick in this year's draft, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, was merely trying to survive in his team's 41-21 loss to the Bears, Griffin was reminding people why he was worthy of the four picks Washington surrendered to St. Louis to select him second overall. Luck is so gifted that he has been hailed as the greatest quarterback prospect in the past three decades. Griffin, on the other hand, already looks like a harbinger for the position. The further we go into the future, the more quarterbacks might have skills equally as impressive as his own.
It's simply the logical path that the league now finds itself on. The days when teams pined for a burly, 6-foot-5 statue who could throw from the pocket and do little else seem like eons ago. Instead, we're seeing a different model, one first legitimized by the mind-blowing rookie season of Carolina's Cam Newton last year and now pushed forward even more by Griffin's fast start. It used to be that "mobile" was the only way to describe such talents. "Versatile'' is the more accurate word choice in this case.
"You're definitely seeing an evolution at that position," said Shea, who also has worked with top draft picks such as St. Louis' Sam Bradford, Detroit's Matthew Stafford and Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman. "It used to be that teams would refer to certain players as athletes playing quarterback. Now it's getting turned around. People are starting to say that we have quarterbacks playing the position who just happen to have great athletic ability."
"The 'drop-back' quarterback always referred to somebody who had more organization and discipline to play in the pocket," said George Whitfield, who trained Cam Newton for last year's combine. "The idea was that you had a guy like [Hall of Famer] Troy Aikman and a guy like [former Nebraska star quarterback] Tommie Frazier and you couldn't marry their skill sets. What I've seen from the younger quarterbacks coming up is an admiration for more conventional quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning. Those guys didn't have the best God-given ability but they turned themselves into legends. Now you're seeing that same drop-back talent being one of the best athletes on the field. That's when it gets scary."
Griffin and Newton aren't the only recent poster children for that trend. Miami rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill had enough natural ability that he played wide receiver at the start of his college career at Texas A&M. Tennessee's second-year quarterback, Jake Locker, ran a 4.52 40-yard dash at last year's NFL combine, and another rookie, Seattle's Russell Wilson, won his team's starting job over highly touted free-agent acquisition Matt Flynn because Wilson is dynamic, both as a passer and a runner.
Even Luck doesn't get enough credit for his overall athleticism. Though he downplayed his ability recently -- "I'm nowhere near the athlete that Cam Newton or Robert Griffin is" -- his coaches stress that he's very much a part of this offensive evolution. "People sometimes don't realize that Andrew's combine numbers were very similar to Cam Newton's," said Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. "Plus, he came from a pro-style offense, so he's already familiar with how we operate at this level. What you're looking for in any quarterback is a big, strong kid who's accurate as a passer. If he's an athlete, that's a nice extra benefit to have in there."
Still, it's hard to not think of Griffin as more freakish than Newton was upon his entry into the league last season. Griffin has run the 40-yard dash in 4.35 seconds, and his arm is both powerful and precise. As Shea said, "He reminds me a lot of Matthew Stafford in that way. The ball has just as much velocity coming off his hands as it does when it hits the receiver. His arm is really live."
Combine those skills with Griffin's intelligence and work ethic, and he's a coach's dream. When he worked with Shea this past spring, Griffin routinely would throw about 100 passes before the coach would end the drill for the day. After that, Griffin would go to every receiver he'd trained with -- players who were trying to improve their own draft status -- and ask them what they wanted to work on. It was a small offer, but one that said plenty about Griffin's generosity and belief in preparation.
The rookie quarterback is just as committed to doing the little things after practice at his team's facility. While other players trudged into the locker room on a recent sweltering afternoon, Griffin fine-tuned his footwork on a simple play-action fake. That same deft ballhandling would be instrumental in setting up the Redskins' first touchdown against New Orleans -- an 88-yard scoring pass to Pierre Garcon.
That play typifies the same approach Griffin has brought to everything he's done in the NFL so far: Trust your preparation, and good things will happen. "You have to know your assignments like the back of your hand [at this level], because the defenses are used to all the offensive plays that have been run in the league," Griffin said. "You have to make sure you're on top of your stuff so they can't take advantage of you."
The Redskins also have helped Griffin's development by playing to his strengths instead of forcing him to fit into their offensive system. As proof, Washington ran the ball 44 times on Sunday, with Griffin adding 10 attempts of his own for 42 yards. "We've tried to adjust to what he does well," said Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan. "He has everything you want -- the strong arm, the ability to make all the throws and natural leadership ability. People gravitate to him."
There used to be a time, not too long ago, when quarterbacks as gifted as Griffin didn't inspire such easy praise. They had coaches who believed in them, but they also faced plenty of critics who questioned their staying power. The multidimensional signal caller with the Hall of Fame future (John Elway, Steve Young) wasn't nearly as prominent as the nimble talent who struggled to connect on 55 percent of his passes (Kordell Stewart, Vince Young). Too often, teams viewed quarterbacks categorically. It was rare to find a thrower who could run or a runner who could throw.
Little by little, that perception began to fade. Donovan McNabb's success in Philadelphia helped, as did Steve McNair's in Tennessee. The explosion and eventual maturation of Michael Vick pushed the boundaries of what observers thought quarterbacks should and could be. Mobile passers such as Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, Dallas' Tony Romo and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger also did their part before Cam Newton stormed onto the scene last fall.
There's no secret to the value of such men. NFL defensive linemen have become so fast that quarterbacks have to be able to elude them in the pocket. As Chicago Bears defensive end Israel Idonije said, "There's no question that you'd rather face a standing target than a moving one." "The game is spreading out more," said Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon. "You're seeing four- and five-receiver sets all the time. And when you start spreading the field like that, the corners off the edge become shorter. That means there's a lot more heat coming at you and you better have a quarterback who can see things and move."
Added Whitfield: "The true pocket passer is grossly overrated, especially because you have to buy time and stay alive with your athletic ability. Nobody is going to confuse Andrew Luck with an NBA point guard, but he has the athleticism and intuition to do it. You see it with Cam, Russell Wilson, Tannehill and definitely RG3. You don't have to hit a home run like Michael Vick can. But I don't know how you help your team without that element today."
The college game is driving much of what is happening in the NFL. Whitfield said some pro teams are taking as much as 60 percent of their snaps from the shotgun, which is the prevalent formation in college these days. When pro teams are in passing downs, that number goes as high as 75 percent. The irony here is that spread-formation quarterbacks used to be questioned about -- and downgraded because of -- their lack of experience under center.
Griffin faced such scrutiny at this year's combine. During one of his interviews, a coach broke down his accuracy under center and in the shotgun. After unveiling that statistical analysis, the coach asked Griffin to explain why he was more accurate in the gun. But it's a question that doesn't really matter when considering Griffin's path.
Said Shea: "If you look at Robert's beginnings, most of the colleges that recruited him wanted him to play receiver. He thought he had more to offer in terms of value at the [quarterback] position, and he wound up at Baylor. He felt he could handle the position with his arm and his mind. He had a real toughness to him, that he could make plays from the pocket. That's what he does now. He wants to throw the ball before he moves."
Luck approaches the game the same way, even though his Colts debut wasn't nearly as memorable as Griffin's premiere with the Redskins. Chicago forced Luck into four turnovers (three interceptions and a fumble) while sacking him three times. Luck also wasn't helped by a running game that gained only 63 yards or a supporting cast with far less experience than Griffin's. Luck knew one of the biggest differences from college to pro football was the speed of defenders, which is something that his father, former NFL quarterback Oliver Luck, had told him. The Bears merely reinforced that belief.
One of the notable mistakes Luck made on Sunday involved a second-quarter interception. Colts wide receiver Donnie Avery had gained a step on cornerback Tim Jennings with a double move, but Luck lofted his throw just enough that Jennings recovered to snatch it. Still, the Bears were impressed by Luck's composure in the midst of such a frustrating afternoon. "He's a great competitor," Jennings said. "You can see he has command of that offense and he tries to take what the defense gives him. But it's also tough to play a defense like ours on the road in your first game."
"I know consistency is paramount," Luck said. "You can do some good things out there, but if that's countered by bad decisions, you pay for it."
The consensus is that Luck will not have many days like that over the course of his career. Along with having an NFL pedigree, he is a quick learner. Arians said his offseason approach to preparing Luck for this season was to "throw the whole playbook at him to see what sticks and then do it all over again." Luck has responded by adjusting to whatever mistakes he makes with the same savvy a veteran would display. "His grasp of concepts and how things fit together is pretty impressive," Arians said. "It could take some guys four or five years to understand some of what we're teaching him."
As fast as Luck is expected to grow, it's also likely that he'll showcase more of his athleticism. What he won't do is pay much attention to the comparisons that people routinely make between him and RG3. "It's completely natural for fans and the media to do it," Luck said. "People love comparing people to one another, but I don't get caught up in it." Griffin takes a similar stance about the hype surrounding his arrival, saying, "I just stay grounded and away from the news and media outlets. I just try to be me."
Those are sensible and predictable attitudes. They also will serve these players well going forward. Yet both may be too young to understand exactly what is happening to the position they play in the game they love. NFL quarterbacks are going through a subtle makeover that could have long-lasting effects. At this point, RG3 looks like the newest face of it.
"You're starting to see some chinks in the armor of that old-school approach [to the position]," Shea said. "You'll see more general managers going after college coaches who know how to put these guys in the spread, just like Tampa Bay tried to hire [Oregon's] Chip Kelly. That's when you'll see a big change. The college game is already 95 percent of that anyway. We're just seeing the tip of the iceberg as far as where the NFL is heading with quarterbacks."