Hyperbole can run amok when an NFL team wins its division for the first time in 13 years, especially if much of the heavy lifting is done by two rookies, one of them a virtual unknown before training camp convened. But it’s fair to say what we’re seeing with Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris is extraordinary, if not unprecedented. Indeed, to find anything like it in pro football history, you’d have to have to set the Way-Back Machine for 1946.
That was the year the Cleveland Browns made their debut in the All-America Conference, a league that competed against the NFL (before partially merging with it in 1950). Perhaps you’ve heard about the Browns in that era. They hardly ever lost. Anyway, in their inaugural season, they had a rookie quarterback and a rookie running back who made just as big an impact as the Washington Redskins’ dynamic duo. The QB was Otto Graham; the back was Marion Motley. Both went on to the Hall of Fame.
Graham led the AAC that year with 17 touchdown passes and a ridiculous (for the time) 112.1 rating. Motley, a 6-foot-1, 232-pound cement mixer of a fullback, rushed for 601 yards, fourth in the league, and averaged an outrageous 8.2 yards an attempt. The Browns scored 66 points in one game, 51 in another and easily won the championship. The two rookies, meanwhile, made the all-pro team.
And that, friends, is the closest comparison, in the annals of blocking and tackling, to the first-year feats of Griffin and Morris. You have to go back to the days before face masks, to the days when some clubs were still running the single wing (including the New York Yankees, who played the Browns in the first AAC title game). Why, Motley was one of just four black players in the two pro leagues in 1946; he helped reintegrate the sport after a dozen seasons of all-whiteness.
Griffin and Morris can’t do anything that historic, of course, but their statistical feats are pretty impressive. RG3 finished third in the NFL in passer rating (102.4), set a rookie rushing record for quarterbacks (815 yards) and made the Pro Bowl. Alfred finished third in the league with 1,613 rushing yards, the third-most ever by a rookie, and should have made the Pro Bowl. (Alas, the ballots were cast before he went for 200 yards and three touchdowns in the division-clinching win against Dallas.) Imagine: an instant Pro Bowl QB and an instant 1,600-yard back in the same draft.
That’s how you go from 5-11 to 10-6 in a single season, as the Redskins have. But it’s incredibly hard to pull off, for any number of reasons. For one thing, you have to hit the lottery in the draft. (And getting Morris in the sixth round, after taking Griffin second overall, certainly qualifies as that.) For another, the rookies have to have an opportunity to play — a lot. It helps, in other words, if the team is talent-starved at certain positions.
Take the 2001 San Diego Chargers. Their first two picks that year were LaDainian Tomlinson and Drew Brees — future Hall of Famers both. Drew, though, hardly got on the field as a rookie. Three seasons later, the Chargers’ rookie class included Philip Rivers and Michael Turner. But Rivers threw only eight passes in his first year, and Turner carried just 20 times (thanks to the presence of Tomlinson).
Or how about the 1958 Chicago Cardinals? They took a quarterback, King Hill, with the first pick in the draft and a running back, John David Crow, with the second pick. (That’s right, they had the first two selections.) But Hill was a bust, spending most of his career as a punter, and Crow, a four-time Pro Bowler, didn’t get going until his second season. The Cardinals, as a result, finished 2-9-1, worse than the year before (3-9).
Then there are the Minnesota Vikings, who came out of the 1993 draft with a back who would later rush for 1,500 yards in a season (Robert Smith) and a quarterback who had just won the Heisman Trophy. Sound familiar? The QB was no RG3, though. In fact, he was Gino Torretta, who played in a grand total of two NFL games.
So it’s not just a case of drafting a quality quarterback and running back in the same year. That’s just the beginning. Oh, and lest we forget, durability matters, too. Morris had 335 rushing attempts; only five rookies have had more. And Griffin toughed it out the past two weeks with a sprained knee. If Alfred had broken down or Robert had been more badly hurt (he shook off the effects of a concussion two months earlier), we probably wouldn’t be talking about this.
FYI: Aside from Graham and Motley, some of the best rookie backfield combos are Johnny Unitas and Lenny Moore with the 1956 Baltimore Colts, Sid Luckman and Bill Osmanski with the ‘39 Chicago Bears and, this year, Andrew Luck and Vick Ballard with the Indianapolis Colts. (See the accompanying chart for more details.) But it wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that, in terms of sheer production, Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris might be the best of the bunch. We just don’t know whether — like Otto, Marion, Johnny U., Lenny and Sid — they have Canton in their future. It should be fun to find out, though.