Robert Griffin III Is A Great Signing for the Cleveland Browns
If Robert Griffin III had a career arc it would look like a short pier. He has just turned 26 years of age and despite reaching peaks that few quarterbacks have reached, he remained unsigned after two weeks of free agency. Hue Jackson’s Cleveland Browns eventually picked him up, but only on a two-year deal with a relatively small guaranteed sum.
Teams are typically desperate for talent at the quarterback position. It’s so difficult to find a quality starter that every avenue is explored. The NFL is so desperate that players such as Brian Hoyer, Josh McCown and Ryan Fitzpatrick are re-used over and over again despite repeatedly proving themselves as incapable at this level. McCown and Fitzpatrick appeared to be in greater demand both this year and in previous years than Griffin was before he signed with the Browns.
Sure, there are obvious concerns. Griffin’s health has been an issue throughout his career. He tore his ACL towards the end of his rookie season and forced his way back onto the field when he clearly wasn’t ready for the start of his second season. Mike Shanahan’s job as the head coach should have been to take control of his team and prevent Griffin from getting onto the field, protect himself from himself as you might say. He didn’t and Griffin’s performances predictably suffered.
Over the first two years of his career Griffin ran a very simple offense. He was reliant on working off of play action, taking deep shots downfield to create big plays. He showed off precision as a passer and intelligence to break down coverages within the structure of that offense.
After Shanahan was fired and replaced by Jay Gruden, Griffin was suddenly being asked to explore other areas of his skill set. In his third year, he was essentially a rookie again because he had to learn a new offense, relying less on play action and more on pre-snap reads to get the ball out of his hands to timing routes. Griffin started the season well, showing off consistent accuracy and generally executing the offense as designed.
He broke his ankle early on in Week 2 though, sidelining him and disrupting his development in this new scheme for the next two months.
When Griffin returned, he was inconsistent. Yes, inconsistent. His stretch of play over the second half of the 2014 season has been presented as a complete trainwreck. For whatever reason, the media in Washington latched onto a handful of negative plays and used them to condemn the quarterback for not immediately picking up Jay Gruden’s offense. Griffin likely suffered from being so impressive as a rookie and having to deal with the dysfunction that appeared obvious during the Shanahan regime. His projected role in Shanahan’s departure and his past performances meant that onlookers wanted instant gratification.
This was the screenshot, via CBS, that took over all discussions surrounding Griffin at the time. The quarterback is in the pocket and has all five receivers open. It’s first down so he can throw it to any of his options and feel comfortable about the yards gained. Griffin didn’t find any of his open receivers. As the screenshot shows, he is moving his feet to try and escape the pocket. He runs into trouble and throws a pass to Niles Paul who isn’t looking for it.
Obviously this is a terrible play from the quarterback, but if you watch enough of the quarterbacks across the league, you’ll find plays that are just as problematic.
A: Throw the ball to one of the five open receivers
B: Twirl and run backwards for a sack pic.twitter.com/rHa8vyZ8Hu
— Cian Fahey (@Cianaf) February 22, 2016
Here’s one I tweeted about a few months ago when charting the quarterback catalogue. It was one of 13 sacks that Russell Wilson caused last year. Wilson has time in the pocket and all five of his wide receivers are open. He makes a terrible decision and runs into a sack instead of throwing for a first down. It’s obviously a terrible play, but it didn’t define Wilson’s season, nor will that constant recurrence of self-inflicted errors define his career.
That game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was hugely problematic for Griffin, his following display against the San Francisco 49ers was frustrating too. They were just two games though. Two games for a quarterback who was still adjusting to his new offense and had just returned from a lengthy injury while playing with a supporting cast that wasn’t helping him.
Furthermore, those two games are bracketed by one exceptional display against the Minnesota Vikings and one strong performance against the New York Giants. Even during this season when he was painted as a trainwreck, it was still very easy to see Griffin’s talent.
Griffin’s talent isn’t just physical. Since tearing his ACL he hasn’t been as explosive a running threat, relying more on his ability to throw the ball to be effective. Few quarterbacks in the NFL have the precision that Griffin shows off as a passer. He can fit the ball into receivers with precision to any level of the field, regularly throwing the ball to the perfect spot and not relying on his intended target to bail him out with an adjustment at the catch point.
In the above chart, Griffin’s 2014 season is charted. He threw 194 qualifying passes and was accurate on 162 of them for an extremely impressive Accuracy Percentage of 83.5 percent. 83.5 percent would have tied Sam Bradford for the highest number of any quarterback in 2015.
One of the main retorts to Griffin’s ability to throw the ball is that he can’t find receivers to throw it to. This is an overblown issue that stems from the circulation of that image and the lack of patience that Washington showed in his development. The second part is bizarre considering the crap they watched Kirk Cousins put on display over the first half of the 2015 season. If you understood how Griffin’s career had developed over the first 2.5 years, you would understand that inconsistency was expected and his value should have been measured in ability.
Like with rookies, you want to see if he has the ability to do what is asked of him and you presume the consistency will come with time.
Griffin isn’t just a quarterback who can run and throw the ball far. He wasn’t just a physical freak coming out of college. His technical prowess and intelligence made him worthy of being the second overall pick in the 2012 draft. That technical prowess and intelligence wasn’t consistently on show in 2014, but it was still there. This play against the Minnesota Vikings was extremely impressive. Griffin stepped up in the pocket to evade the incoming edge pressure while manipulating the coverage downfield with a subtle pump fake.
That pump fake pushed the outside cornerback to the post route in the endzone and drew the slot cornerback inside to the curl route, creating space for DeSean Jackson outside. If you look closer at the endzone angle of the play, you’ll notice that Griffn’s foot is tripped up by his left tackle as he steps forward and he is hit as soon as he releases the ball from the defensive end. The hit was flagged as illegal.
Delivering the ball as he was being hit was a constant obstacle for Griffin to work against. Bill Callahan wasn’t in Washington during the 2014 season, so the team’s offensive line was nowhere near as effective as it became over the second half of the 2015 season.
Case Keenum can’t make that play. You won’t find Brian Hoyer doing it, Ryan Fitzpatrick might but with a lot less control and Josh McCown is more likely to drop his eyes and run into trouble. It’s hard to even find examples of Brock Osweiler showing off such subtle control in his play, and he just got paid a billion dollars.
It’s not like that play was a once-off either.
Against this blitz on Third-and-4, Griffin stands tall in the pocket and shows off the poise to deliver the ball as two defenders arrive in his face. He located the correct receiver and threw the ball on time to the correct spot on the field. This was 100 percent a “pocket” play, athleticism had nothing to do with the outcome.
On this play, Griffin executes a clean quick dropback before delivering the ball with precision and timing to DeSean Jackson. Jackson catches the ball between two defenders for the touchdown. Griffin had to place the ball perfectly to avoid leading Jackson into a huge hit from the arriving safety but to also put it out of reach from the undercutting cornerback.
A common criticism of Griffin is that he can’t read through progressions. It’s the go-to move for those intent on criticizing black quarterbacks. It goes completely against the evidence on the field. On this play, we can see Griffin’s eyes focused on the left side of the field when he gets to the top of his drop. He brings them back around to the right side just in time to deliver an accurate pass to DeSean Jackson. Griffin absorbs a huge hit because the Washington pass protection failed to account for the delayed blitz from the linebacker on the second level.
From the same game you can see Griffin drop a deep ball to DeSean Jackson down the right sideline after coming off his first read, but his most impressive play of this kind came against the New York Giants.
On this play, Griffin converts a third down by cycling through his reads quickly. He is able to deliver the ball just before the defensive linemen close around him. Griffin didn’t appear to ever actually want to throw it to his third receiver, instead using a pump fake to that option to clear out his passing lane. That allowed him to lead Andre Roberts back towards space, away from the defensive back trying to cover him. This was hugely important because it allowed Roberts to turn away and turn a good gain into a great one with his feet.
When Griffin gets time in the pocket he does show off that he has the ability to use it. He also shows off an understanding of down-and-distance, understanding when to get rid of the ball to best exploit the defensive play call.
On this play from the San Francisco 49ers game, the defense sends a heavy blitz after the quarterback. They have sent more bodies than the offense can block so Griffin knows that he is going to take a hit. He also knows that he has to hold the ball long enough for his receivers to get downfield so they can cross the first down marker. Griffin finds Andre Roberts as his outlet for a first down and delivers the ball at the perfect time. It comes at a cost though. He is hit both high and low by two defenders. He set his feet and stood tall, taking that hit to get the first down by throwing a perfectly-placed pass with velocity to comfortably beat the safety.
As was often the case, his supporting cast negated the play. A holding penalty on Kory Lichtensteiger sent the offense moving in the wrong direction.
This Third-and-20 play shows Griffin make a slight adjustment with his feet in the pocket to react to the penetration on his right side. That penetration gives Connor Barwin a chance to come off his block and close on the quarterback in the pocket. Griffin delivers the ball very quickly to get rid of it before Barwin arrives, throwing it with great velocity and precision 20 yards downfield. As he so often did that season, Andre Roberts dropped a perfect pass from his quarterback.
These are plays that Griffin needs to make more consistently but they are plays that he makes about as often as those who continue to get opportunities as part of the carousel of quarterback misery.
Where Griffin can separate himself from those players is with his precision as a passer.
Not only is he more accurate on short and intermediate routes than other players who were available this offseason, he is arguably the most impressive deep passer in the NFL. Griffin can make throws that most quarterbacks can’t and he can make them with impressive consistency. Even when he misses, he rarely misses wildly. That is typically a sign of a passer who is in full control of the ball and is comfortable with his arm talent.
There is no doubting Griffin’s ability as a passer. He is on a different level to the Josh McCowns, Ryan Fitzpatricks and Brock Osweilers of the world. Griffin doesn’t need Hue Jackson to revive his career or rebuild him as a player, he just needs his new coaching staff to embrace him by showing patience and constructing a system around him that plays to his strengths. The same things that every successful quarterback in the NFL relies on.