Running quarterbacks were oxymorons in the NFL, as curious a term as “blocking offensive linemen.” Running was the nature of each back in the backfield — whether he was a quarter, half or full — until a metamorphism began about 75 years ago.
In 1936, Green Bay’s Arnie Herber became the league’s first passing leader with more than 1,000 yards. The 3,000-yard standard was reached in 1960 by Baltimore’s Johnny Unitas and Denver’s Frank Tripucka; Miami’s Dan Marino took it past 5,000 in 1984.
Along the way, the league still had quarterbacks who could run, but teams didn’t build offenses around them. If your guy could scramble and extend plays like Fran Tarkenton and Roger Staubach, or Randall Cunningham and Steve Young, great. But aside from some bootlegs, few plays are designed to take advantage of that skill set.
Coach Mike Shanahan appears to be wiser than that, based on the Washington Redskins’ season opener at New Orleans.
Robert Griffin III is a Swiss Army knife, so let’s be thankful that Shanahan didn’t use him like a simple bottle opener. And let’s not take it for granted that anyone would’ve been as creative and liberal with RG3. The NFL is a copycat league, and most coaches follow the script of pocket passers and traditional formations.
Dual-threat QBs who excelled in spread-type college offenses rarely get much love from the NFL. They’re allowed to continue operating a similar style of attack even less often. Either they get with the program of playing on Sundays, or content themselves with memories of glory on Saturdays.
The Redskins took the opposite approach with RG3 in his NFL debut. They made him as comfortable against the Saints as he was against Stephen F. Austin. If he changed Washington’s uniform, Griffin might have imagined he still was at Baylor, running the same offense that netted him the Heisman Trophy.
Griffin lined up in the pistol, a shorter version of the shotgun with a tailback behind him. He ran zone reads and keepers and options. He looked very much like the spread quarterbacks who populate the NCAA Top 25. He rushed 10 times and eight of them were by design, a supposed no-no for NFL teams that want their quarterbacks to enjoy long careers.
Shanahan and his offensive coordinator/son Kyle Shanahan weren’t trying to get RG3 killed. Mike Shanahan said the intent of the option “is to not have the quarterback carry the ball.” But Griffin was such a potent weapon at Baylor, it simply makes sense to incorporate the same elements in Washington, leading Shanahan to reminisce about wishbones, veers and counter-options from his stint at the University of Oklahoma.
“It’s kind of fun to do some of those things you haven’t done for a while,” he said during Monday’s news conference. “When you’ve got a guy like Robert who has the ability to really keep a defense off-balance with his ability to do a lot different things, then you’ve got to make decisions what you think works best with his talents. There are a lot of different directions we can go, and we’ll experiment as the year goes on.”
Future opponents will have an advantage compared to New Orleans, which had no idea what was coming. But assuming the game film doesn’t include everything the Redskins might do this season, opponents might want to add some Baylor footage to their viewing list.
That’s what Shanahan did, helping RG3 do this: 19 of 26 passing for 320 yards and two TDs.
“I’ve obviously looked at all [of Baylor’s] film and all the people that run the option at the college level,” Mike Shanahan said. “You’re constantly looking at different players, different schemes, different things that you enjoy. I enjoy watching film and seeing what people do schematically.”
Denver Broncos coach John Fox should get a game ball, too. He didn’t just toss aside NFL convention last year; he body-slammed it and delivered a flying elbow from the top rope.
Fox deleted his pro-style offense and installed Tim Tebow’s Florida Gator offense. The bold, unprecedented experiment helped Denver reach the playoffs and win a wild-card game, but it was destined to fail as a long-term system due to Tebow’s subpar passing ability.
In RG3, Shanahan has a quarterback who actually can throw the ball as well as he runs it. The possibility of him doing either, on any given play, causes uncertainty and increases hesitation for defenses.
Credit the Shanahans for bucking NFL tradition and maximizing — not diluting — Griffin’s dual threats. They have the perfect man for the ol’ college try, and they’re smart enough/brave enough to utilize him fully.