Andrew Luck plays Thursday night. Robert Griffin III has the week off. Thus, the questions people in Indianapolis and Washington, and elsewhere, have asked for two months — Who’s better? By how much? Why? — will take a pause, if only for a few days.
“You always did that with Elway and Marino,” Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said last week. “Those are natural. You think about the whole class, but especially the guys that really play at a high level, it’s natural to watch and compare.”
Luck was born Sept. 12, 1989. Griffin arrived exactly five months later. By virtue of this happy coincidence of chronology — not to mention their strong right arms, their quick minds, their position as the first and second players taken in the NFL draft and their arrival to sorry teams that started them immediately — we are halfway through the first season in which Luck and Griffin will be compared in every aspect of their games.
“We see it already,” said former Baltimore coach Brian Billick, who now serves as an analyst for Fox and the NFL Network. “Those comparisons are going to be made forever and a day.”
They are simultaneously inevitable and warranted — and perhaps tiresome — just as those between John Elway and Dan Marino (draft class of 1983) were en route to the Hall of Fame. But with Luck playing his ninth game Thursday — the Colts face lowly Jacksonville — and Griffin already nine games in as the Redskins face their bye week, this is as good a time as any to look at where the top two players in the draft stand now, and where they might be headed.
“One thing I look for: neither with Robert nor with Andrew has there been these big ebb-and-flow type games,” said ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski, who has watched every snap each quarterback has taken since the preseason. “They’ve both been very, very consistent. This is the NFL. There are going to be mistakes made. I’ve seen guys that have been in the league 10 years get humiliated. But neither of these guys has been humiliated.”
Since 1998, two quarterbacks have been taken among the first three picks in the draft just three other times: Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf at 1 and 2 in 1998; Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb and Akili Smith with the first three picks in 1999; and David Carr as the top choice and Joey Harrington the third in 2002. Humiliations dot the early portions of so many of those careers, and even define some of them.
So leading up to last April’s draft, the prism through which Luck and Griffin were viewed was: Which one might fail, and why?
“Both of them, first of all, have the temperament, class and dignity — and a work ethic about themselves, an intelligence — that you don’t have any problem making them the face of organization,” said Solomon Wilcots, an analyst for the NFL on CBS who, like Billick, has broadcast both a Redskins and a Colts game. “I think they’re equals in that regard.”
Start with Griffin, who entered the bye week on a three-game losing streak that has left the Redskins in last place in the NFC East. He is averaging 7.61 yards per pass attempt, eighth in the NFL, not only significantly higher than any of the five rookie quarterbacks who are starters (Luck ranks 19th, four spots behind Miami’s Ryan Tannehill) but higher than Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers. His completion rate of 65.6 percent is also eighth in the league, also best of the rookie class, and better than Brady, Brees, Matt Schaub and Eli Manning. He has thrown just three interceptions, tied with Brady for fewest among passers with at least 110 attempts. And he is on pace to rush for 940 yards, which would shatter the rookie record for rushing yards by a quarterback, set last year by Carolina’s Cam Newton.
“He’s been very consistent, which is highly unusual for young quarterbacks,” Jaworski said. “I don’t see a lot of boneheaded plays. I see a guy that is a good decision-maker, and the system they have for him for is absolutely fine to get him acclimated to the NFL.”
So even as the Redskins’ season appears in free fall, the team’s decision to trade four draft picks — three first-rounders and one second-rounder — to St. Louis for the Rams’ first-rounder in 2012 appears sound.
“In the position we were in, you’ve got to evaluate both of them,” Shanahan said. “And you don’t make that move unless you think the world of both guys.”
Griffin’s stunning opener — throwing for 320 yards and two scores in an upset victory at New Orleans — brought the easy and early conclusion that the Redskins may have ended up with the better player. But Luck enters Thursday’s game having won three straight. Sunday against Miami, he threw for 433 yards, a rookie record. A year after winning just two games, the Colts are 5-3 and in the running for the playoffs.
“The Colts did the right thing,” Wilcots said. “I think they took the right guy first. I think any team would’ve taken Andrew Luck — and that’s not a knock on RGIII.”
One element that makes the entire comparison more difficult, and perhaps more interesting, is that Luck and Griffin are being asked to do completely different things. Luck is throwing 42 passes per game, third in the NFL, as opposed to 29 attempts per game for Griffin. Luck’s 2,404 yards passing trails just Brees, Eli Manning and Brady, players with 15 Pro Bowls and six Super Bowl titles among them. Luck’s completion percentage of 56.5 ranks just 29th in the league, but he has completed 37 passes of 20 or more yards, tied with Peyton Manning for most in the NFL.
“With Andrew, they’re going downfield more — a vertical attack,” Wilcots said. “. . . Your completion percentage is not going to be as high. In the other system, there are easier throws, shorter throws, and you get a higher completion percentage.”
Billick and Jaworski both pointed out two advantages Luck has: a legitimate downfield threat in 12-year veteran Reggie Wayne, and the fact that he ran a pro-style system at Stanford. The sense is that Luck will have more of a straight-line trajectory: He will simply get better at what he is already doing. Griffin, who already suffered a concussion on one run outside the pocket, may have to alter what he does.
“Long-term, what I think eventually is going to have to happen is he’s going to have to play quarterback under center in an NFL system,” Jaworski said. “He’s going to have to do three-step drops, five-step drops. You can’t last in the NFL running the offense off the spread option. No one’s perfected that yet. The quarterback’s going to get killed. Eventually, you have to get to playing NFL-style quarterback.”
There is half a season remaining, and entire careers beyond that. But “forever and a day,” as Billick said, has begun, and Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III are walking stride for stride, linked for now and the future.
“I haven’t changed my opinion of them,” Billick said. “They’re can’t-miss players.”