The All-22: Can Kyle Shanahan replicate the RGIII blueprint with Johnny Manziel?
"The thing that’s awesome about having a guy like Robert [Griffin III]," then-Washington offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said last summer, "is Robert’s capable of being great at anything. It doesn’t matter whether it’s dropping back, play [action] pass, bootlegs, zone read, options, it really doesn’t matter. He’s capable at being great at all of it.
"That’s what’s fun when you coach a guy like that, that you really don’t have to force anything. We’re going to do whatever the defense gives us."
From one versatile quarterback to the next.
The new charge for Shanahan: help Johnny Manziel burst onto the NFL scene with a velocity similar to what Griffin displayed while winning Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2012.
"Johnny and Robert are very similar," Shanahan, now the play-caller in Cleveland, told USA Today's Jim Corbett this week. "They’re both talented guys who can make plays with their legs. But there comes a time in the NFL when they’re going to keep you in the pocket, and you’re going to have to have that ability to make the throws with your arm and mind."
Manziel's critics question whether he can show such poise as a pro. Griffin faced similar scrutiny, then opened himself up to it again during a 2013 season that saw him struggle to regain his prior form after his infamous playoff knee injury.
The offense Shanahan draws up for the Browns is sure to vary somewhat from what he ran in Washington under the watchful coaching eye of his father. Griffin and Manziel are not the same player, despite their similarities, and the rosters of each team are far from carbon copies.
But as Shanahan pointed out, Manziel displays shades of RGIII -- and pieces of the Texas A&M offense Manziel ran certainly should look at least a little familiar to those who witnessed Shanahan's work in D.C.
Over the course of his remarkable rookie season, Griffin completed 91.3 percent of the passes he attempted behind the line of scrimmage (usually unhindered screens), 68.2 percent from zero to nine yards, and 67.4 percent from 10-19 yards downfield. (All numbers courtesy of Pro Football Focus.)
Manziel's percentages last season within the same windows, via The Sideline View: 97 percent, 71 percent and 66 percent, respectively.
The usual caveat of Manziel putting up those stats versus NCAA competition -- as opposed to what Griffin faced each Sunday -- applies here, but the numbers coming out of Texas A&M should give Shanahan some confidence that he can test the same areas of the field that he did with RGIII at QB. Manziel also averaged 6.3 yards per carry over his college career, the exact same number Griffin is sitting at through two NFL campaigns.
How did these quarterbacks produce stats in such close proximity? It all starts with playcalling, and approaches there that took advantage of Manziel's and Griffin's skillsets, while carefully navigating their deficiencies.
One overlooked aspect for both QBs is their ability to roll in either direction and be equally dangerous. This is critical for a couple of reasons: 1. It makes it very difficult for defenses to overload either side of the field; and 2. It keeps the entire playbook on the table, regardless of what blitz or personnel packages might be lining up across the way.
Case in point: the play below from Texas A&M's 2012 game at Alabama -- the game that more or less cemented Manziel as the Heisman winner that season. The Crimson Tide struggled to come up with an answer for Manziel, particularly in the first quarter as A&M raced out to a 20-0 lead.
Here, they managed to push the Aggies into a 3rd-and-6 from their own territory. Texas A&M flashed a four-wide set -- as it did often in the contest and throughout Manziel's career; Alabama countered with man coverage and a blitz, six defenders in all rushing the passer and an overload to Manziel's blindside.
Three of Manziel's receivers were to his left at the snap. That's not unusual in itself, except that on this particular play Manziel had no safety valve to his right -- his throwing side, as well as the area of the field the Alabama blitzers vacated to rush the passer.
For less mobile or less athletic quarterbacks, rolling to their non-throwing side can be a substantial problem because squaring up on the run can easily push mechanics out of whack. You'll see plenty of passes in these situations sail high or wide simply because QBs struggle to get their feet and shoulders turned in the proper direction.
Manziel has never had an issue rolling to his left. On this play, he merely spun and sprinted to that side, while keeping his head up and his body under control enough to threaten Alabama with a pass.
The Aggies converted the third-down try thanks to a Manziel scramble; he was able to turn the corner and outrace Alabama's front line of defense. The secondary could not step forward and help in time as doing so would have left receivers wide open, and Manziel completed many a pass in college while fading away from his throwing shoulder.
Griffin, at least when at full speed pre-injury, did well with that approach, too. One of his standout performances during the 2012 season came in Week 11 against Philadelphia: 14-for-15 passing for 200 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions and his only perfect QB rating of the season. The Eagles defense had trouble covering just about everyone that year, but getting in Griffin's face was far too tall a task. That was true, in part, because forcing Griffin to his left did little to slow him down.
Below, we get another 3rd-and-6, this time for Griffin's Redskins. The Eagles rushed four, shaded to Griffin's blindside, then stunted down in an attempt to prevent him from rolling right. So Griffin broke in the reverse direction, held the defenders by continuing to eyeball his receivers downfield, then raced for the first down.
It is that ability to create with both their arms and legs that helps elevate Griffin and Manziel. The NFL has several QBs with the speed to keep defenses wary of them as runners, from Griffin to Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and even a guy like Ben Roethlisberger.
Where offensive coordinators frequently make best use of dual-threat QBs is in play-action. Manziel's escapability made him a nightmare for opponents, regardless of the call, but well-executed misdirections set the stage for many a big gain. The following play shows us why that was so.
Again, Texas A&M lined up against Alabama with four wide -- trips (three receivers) to Manziel's left -- and a running back alongside him. The play: Manziel and his running back faked an option to the right, then Manziel stepped back and fired deep over the middle.
Three Alabama defenders are spotlighted below, as Manziel pulls away from the option ruse to pass. Boxed in the middle of the screenshot are a pair of linebackers totally locked in on the run fake -- one responsible for A&M's back, the other for Manziel. The misdirection carried that pair closer to the line of scrimmage, freeing space behind them.
Defender No. 3 is Alabama's deep safety, who also bit on the play fake. By doing so, he vacated his center-field position and provided Manziel with an easy pitch and catch post route.
Shanahan had at his disposal in 2012 the league's top-ranked rushing offense. The unexpected emergence of Alfred Morris in the backfield with Griffin handed Shanahan even more ammunition with which to keep defenses off-balance. He will try to recreate that run-pass combo in Cleveland with RB Ben Tate.
Washington lined up in many a shotgun or pistol set, but Shanahan also did not hesitate to move Griffin under center. When executed correctly, Griffin's play-fakes dropping back worked the same magic as Manziel's option bluffs.
Below, Griffin gets to the deepest point of his dropback on the aforementioned play, a split-second after faking an inside handoff to Morris. All three Philadelphia linebackers are frozen in place, one maintaining tabs on Morris ... and two still tracking Griffin, even on what became a clear passing play.
Just like on Manziel's deep ball from a few shots back, Griffin found ample space between the linebackers and secondary to whip a completion. Also of note, there were two viable options for him (aside from scrambling): the receiver boxed in yellow to his right, who caught the ball; and a more manageable secondary choice boxed in white to his left. This repeats for us the theme that Griffin -- and Shanahan -- could challenge defenses sideline to sideline, regardless of what the defense called.
How well will Manziel transition to playing under center, at least on occasion? He did so very rarely at Texas A&M, operating the majority of the time out of a shotgun or pistol set. The Aggies ran 27 first-quarter plays during the '12 victory over Alabama, for example, and Manziel was under center for just three -- all handoffs, all occurring from inside the Alabama 3-yard line.
The timing shifts for a QB dropping back from the line as opposed to one taking a shotgun snap. On the Washington play that we just looked at, featuring a play-fake to Morris, Griffin managed to get the ball out in 2.3 seconds.
Everything happens in a more rapid progression when a quarterback does not have to take those three- or five-steps back. Case in point: the play-action shotgun pass from Manziel below took 1.9 seconds from snap to throw.
That's lightning quick for a quarterback to get rid of the football, but Griffin's 2.3-second time is hardly problematic. In each case, the play develops efficiently, with Griffin and Manziel having enough room to step into their throws and their intended receivers finding space downfield.
This brings us back to those completion percentages mentioned earlier. Manziel did stretch the field and did have to work through his progressions at times. Much of his success, though, came off decisive, one-read plays. Often, those calls limited the gains that the Aggies accrued -- taking 4-5 yard chunks rather than finding home runs. They also pushed Manziel's completion percentage up and forced defenses to adjust slightly, opening up space elsewhere on the field.
Shanahan wants to use his quarterback in a comparable fashion. The less high-pressure throws Griffin had to make, the less chance for mistakes there were. Hence, a 20-to-5 TD-to-INT differential during Griffin's rookie campaign.
Even with Josh Gordon likely sidelined for much or all of the 2014 season, Shanahan figures to draw up an attack that moves the ball rapidly from Manziel's (or Brian Hoyer's) hands out to his playmakers. The run and pass games can work in tandem in that way, with a solid between-the-tackles ground attack drawing defenders tighter toward the box ... and a spread-out passing attack pushing them back out to the boundaries.
In reality, if Shanahan's offense is clicking, just about any play call will be available to him.
And that includes a multitude of formations. Shanahan was one of the offensive coordinators who helped revive the pistol's status as a favored offensive set in the NFL. Those teams without running quarterbacks, like Denver with Peyton Manning, even use the pistol now -- it allows running backs to get moving downhill, while also providing a QB with more space to look over the defense.
For teams that do have agile quarterbacks, however, as Shanahan did with Griffin, the options out of the pistol are even greater. Here, we get a 1st-and-goal play for Washington, with Griffin in the pistol and two-thirds of a "diamond" formation next to him (a fullback to his immediate right and a RB set seven yards deep).
Is this a straight drop-back pass? Handoff to the running back? Designed QB run?
In this case, it turned out to be a play-fake up the middle to Morris, then a touchdown pass wide to Darrel Young. Again, the Philadelphia defense was completely focused on the Griffin/Morris tandem in the backfield, leaving gaps all over the field.
A&M often showed the pistol -- and more specifically, the pistol with some variations of the diamond running back set -- with Manziel at the helm. This last play was a three-receiver set (one WR is off the screen to the bottom) with Manziel and two backs. All three receivers broke toward the end zone, while Manziel faked a hand-off inside.
The result: space for Manziel to scramble for a positive gain to his right.
Obviously, Griffin's 2013 season was not nearly in the ballpark of his 2012 effort. Were defenses wiser to Shanahan's play-calling in Year 2 of the RGIII era? Or did a hobbled Griffin simply not have the juice to replicate the electricity he showed over his first 16 or so games?
Assuming for now that it was the latter, Manziel and Shanahan ought to have a bright future together in Cleveland. Manziel may not have the arm strength of Griffin, and he will have to display continued improvement as a decision-maker lest NFL defenses start to punish him for his mistakes. The upside is pretty apparent, especially since Shanahan crafted such a special run with a similarly-gifted quarterback a mere two seasons ago.