Fixing the QBs: Washington's Robert Griffin III
The Washington Redskins gave up a lot to get Robert Griffin III, and now they're dealing with a sunk cost issue that outstrips all the contracts they inked in the first decade of the new millennium, when owner Dan Snyder and a cadre of underqualified front office people conspired to overpay player after player. The Griffin draft in 2012 was supposed to be the reversal of that mindset, when Washington D.C.'s team would build and sustain through the draft, but if Griffin fell from grace, the two first-round picks given up in order to move up to the second overall selection would throw the franchise into a serious reversal of fortune.
Of course, that's exactly what has happened. Griffin has suffered injuries and regressed mightily since his Rookie of the Year season, and first-year head coach Jay Gruden's decision to bench him on what appears to be a permanent basis makes all the sense in the world, based on the tape.
Gruden made that call after three games in November when Griffin did little of any import, completing 52 passes in 79 attempts for 564 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions in losses to the Minnesota Vikings, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and San Francisco 49ers. Things really hit the fan after the middle game, when Griffin (who completed 23 of 32 passes for 207 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions against Tampa Bay) took his teammates to task following the Bucs loss for being less than spectacular.
"If you want to look at the good teams in this league and the great quarterbacks, the Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Mannings, those guys don't play well if their guys don't play well. I need every guy in that locker room and I know they are looking at me saying the same thing."
In case anyone was unclear about the source of the problem, Gruden laid it out for all to hear the day after the Tampa Bay game, in a way you rarely see a coach do with a player in a public forum.
"It's his job to worry about his position, his footwork, his fundamentals, his reads, his progressions, his job at the quarterback position," Gruden said. "It's my job to worry about everybody else. And, yes, everybody else needs to improve. There's no question about it. But it's not his place. His place is to talk about himself and he knows that. He just elaborated a little bit too much."
Gruden was then happy to elaborate about his quarterback, in ways you rarely hear coaches go off about their own players.
"Robert had some fundamental flaws. His footwork was below average. He took three-step drops when he should have taken five. He took a one-step drop when he should have taken three, on a couple occasions, and that can't happen. He stepped up when he didn't have to step up and stepped into pressure. He read the wrong side of the field a couple times. So from his basic performance just critiquing Robert it was not even close to being good enough to what we expect from the quarterback position.
"Just take your drops the right way and throw the five-yard stick route when you're supposed to and do the best you can. Sometimes he worries a little bit too much, we've just got to try to get him better. His frame of mind is in the right place. It just doesn't come out the right way sometimes, but he wants to get better. He knows he has a long way to go to get better. If he stays on the right track as far as work ethic and listening and preparing, then he'll get better.
"You just have to play with greater poise and continue to rep these things so when you catch a shotgun snap or take a drop from center that should be the last thing you should think about. That should come natural. Right now, for whatever reason, those aren't coming natural and that's on us as a staff. We've got to make sure we make it as natural for him as possible."
And that was that. Griffin was a player coming off injury, in a new scheme that had him out of sorts, and playing far below his potential. Gruden took him off the field, quite frankly, because Griffin couldn't execute his coach's concepts.
Based on what I've observed, I think Griffin needs a total overhaul. One is usually exaggerating when one says that about quarterbacks, because most quarterbacks haven't regressed, physically and mentally, to this degree. But I would question whether the level of play Griffin brings to the field in 2014 would make him even draftable, and I went on record in 2012 as saying that he was the most singularly explosive college quarterback I've ever seen.
But if you told me the guy wearing number 10 for the Redskins was an impostor -- as in, Marcus Vick or Pat White somehow commandeered RGIII's swag and was taking the field with it -- I'd believe you. This version of Griffin must be taken down to the studs and rebuilt completely ... and I'm not sure that's possible. Does this mean that I think Robert Griffin III has seen his last days as an effective NFL quarterback? How do others in the know feel? Why on earth did this debacle occur, and is it fixable?
Let's take a closer look.
The basic structural issue with Robert Griffin III, Professional Quarterback in 2014, is an almost complete inability to read defenses and make decisions accordingly. It's been embarrassing this season how out of sync he's been, and though the combination of rust and a new system can explain that to a point, there are basic fundamental problems that point to a longer and more detailed re-construction process. Griffin appears to have lost confidence in his ability to pull the trigger on timing passes (which comprise the majority of Gruden's preferred passing concepts), and his relative lack of mobility is the oversold version of the problem; the real issue is that Griffin, right now, is abysmal in the pocket.
The really frustrating thing about this is that Griffin has the potential to do all the things "real" quarterbacks need to do in order to survive. Here's his first NFL touchdown pass; an 88-yarder to Pierre Garcon against the New Orleans Saints on Sept. 9, 2012. Watch how Griffin looks the safety off after a play fake and hits Garcon in stride with a no-look pass.
Here's Washington's first play from scrimmage against the Buccaneers on Nov. 16 of this year. Griffin has a crossing route coming open to his right and a rush end in his face. All he has to do is move around to see, and it's an easy completion. It's an anticipation throw, but it's makeable. Instead, Griffin bails out and tries to hit tight end Niles Paul with a weird sidearm throw. Through the vagaries of post-catch fate, this becomes a turnover. That's on Paul to a degree, but the offense should have never been in that position. This is a case of Griffin losing his composure in the pocket. When one talks about pocket mobility, we're not discussing running around; it's more about subtle movement to keep the pocket plays alive. You can do this in spectacular and elusive fashion as Russell Wilson does and as Griffin used to do, or you can bewitch defenses like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have for years with precisely-timed mobility.
Either way, this isn't it.
Here's a sack with 10:58 left in the second quarter, and you start to see why Gruden was so frustrated. The Bucs are running basic nickel coverage against Washington's two-by-two, and Griffin chooses to get poleaxed in the pocket after leaving it. By the time he actually reads his open receivers, it's too late; he's taken his eyes off the field and withdrawn into desperation.
Here's an overthrow to DeSean Jackson with 8:38 left in the third quarter. The Redskins line up in trips left against Tampa Bay's man free coverage, and instead of stepping up in the pocket and delivering a timed throw downfield, Griffin rushes, throws off his back foot, and airmails a ball that could (and should) have been an impressive deep completion. On the season, according to Pro Football Focus' charting metrics, Griffin has completed just three of the 13 throws he's attempted 20 or more yards in the air. That is, put simply, unacceptable.
With 12:07 left in the game, the Bucs bring a simple look, but drop their linebackers into coverage. Griffin has open men, but something about the drops convinced him that there were no throws available. He scrambles for a short gain instead.
Here's the second play from scrimmage against San Francisco: more of the same. Griffin can't read the field, and disaster results. He was sacked 16 times in those three November games (20 sacks total on the season), and while his protection was sub-par to be sure, Griffin has nobody to blame but himself for the majority of these takedowns. He was failing QB 101 stuff over and over, and it was obvious that this wasn't working. PFF has Griffin charted as pressured on 51.4 percent of his dropbacks, as opposed to 27.1 percent for everyone else who's thrown a pass in a Redskins uniform this season. That indicates a player who is creating his own chaos.
The Conclusion: Can RGIII be fixed?
Griffin's team has gone 4-14 in his second and third NFL seasons, which would lead one to believe that this thing is over. And it may be, but there is a bit of historical precedent for a quarterback turning his career around in the right environment.
Steve Young's teams were 4-13 in his second and third seasons as an NFL quarterback, but it was with a totally dysfunctional Tampa Bay Buccaneers franchise that had little talent, and less coaching. Young was able to re-invent himself as a Hall of Fame player, and that process started when Bill Walsh believed in his athletic potential enough to trade for him in 1987. Young started a grand total of 10 games over the next four years, learning under Walsh, offensive coordinators Mike Holmgren and (ironically) Mike Shanahan, and playing behind Joe Montana. There was no better possible learning environment in the history of the NFL for a gifted young quarterback, but at a certain point, Young had to take this thing by the scruff of the neck and own it. And as Young told ESPN's Trey Wingo on Nov. 26, that's where it starts.
"The flaws are the job is to deliver the ball from the pocket," Young said of Griffin's current game. "We thought the game might be changing, and we were going with the spread option and do all these new things, and you were going to win a championship that way. It's not going to happen. He's had too many injuries, and he had to learn the job of delivering the ball in the pocket. To master that is like going to medical school. It's like going to law school [which Young did, by the way] It takes a tremendous amount of effort. It's very difficult for young players to make that transition. You have to put the time in and it's not something that you can just put on your iPad and go home and scan it. You have to go into the coach -- five, six, seven hours a day. April, May, June. That work has not been done, and he has not mastered it. And that's the flaw."
Still, Young believes that if he really wants to, Griffin can make a similar leap over time.
”It was easier for me, because Sid Gillman got me early in my career, and Mike Holmgren and Bill Walsh. Everybody was just pounding me that they needed to know where I was. Guys today have success early with the spread option? If I was there, I'd be in the same boat as Robert in many ways. I would have loved running that offense, but it doesn't help you get to the job. What Jay Gruden has said is a complete indictment of [Griffin's] game. Of your preparation. That was the most incredible coach news conference I've ever seen.
"The humility has to come in now, [where Griffin says to himself that] 'I have fundamental flaws, and I have to go fix them. And I'm not going to blame the coach, or the owner, or the players. Not looking for a new town, and that's the fix. It is me, and I have to fix it.'
"He's got the talent. He can put his foot in the ground and throw it as well as anybody. You know he's got the mobility. It's just a matter of capitulating. The job is different than what you thought it was. 'I'm going to make the effort, and change it, and go to school.' Colt McCoy [who replaced Griffin as the starter] did that. He's a much better quarterback than he was a couple years ago, because he recognized that, and he put the time in. He's done that work, and Robert's got to go do it."
So, it seems that the ideal combination for success here is for Robert Griffin to land in a place with a coaching staff that understands the art and science of quarterback redemption, and a stable enough situation where a franchise isn't going to be tempted to throw him out there before he's ready. Maybe Gruden will want to take on that challenge; he'd certainly get his "Quarterback Whisperer" stripes for good were he able to transform RGIII from runaround guy to legitimate pocket quarterback.
No matter right now. What we do know is that whoever takes that on will have a long road ahead of them. As will Mr. Griffin. A professional rebirth is not out of the question, but the odds are long.