A year ago, Newton and the zone-read option were mostly unknown commodities. Sure, both had worked in college, but the NFL game is different. Taking opponents by surprise, then dazzling them with a rare combination of size (Newton is 6 feet 5 and 245 pounds) and athleticism (he rushed for 1,473 yards as a junior at Auburn), Newton seemed ready to redefine his position. His 706 rushing yards as a rookie ranked better than the totals compiled by many running backs.
Newton was named the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year, but the downside was that his secret was out.
“In the offseason,” Rivera said, “we were probably a study.”
Defensive coaches circled the date they’d play against Newton, and in preparation found that his footwork is imperfect and that man-to-man coverage shrinks his passing windows. His versatility, so effective in 2011, could be minimized if opponents took away a part or two of Newton’s game. He’s still effective this season, but the number of big plays is down. Through seven contests in 2012, Newton had 15 total touchdowns; he has eight so far this season.
Rivera said quarterbacks must stay a step ahead of defenses, and he has seen evidence that Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is quickly trying to familiarize Griffin with advanced concepts. Athletic quarterbacks can succeed, but only those who become proficient passers emerge as the game’s best. Aaron Rodgers evolved, but Michael Vick has never become an elite passer. Whose career arc will Newton’s more closely resemble? And what about Griffin’s?
Sitting in that chair, Rivera said he knows this much: Just as defensive coaches studied and complicated things for Newton, they’ll eventually do the same for Griffin.
“Believe me,” Rivera said when asked about Griffin. “We said, ‘Oh boy, he’s what everybody thought he would be. So circle this one.’ ”
’Depends on how you look at it.’
Standing at that lectern, the only time Newton showed a glimpse of his devastating smile was when asked whether he’d voted for Griffin to win last year’s Heisman. Former winners are among those with a vote.
“Uh, that’s a personal question,” Newton said, and a moment later the smile disappeared. “But I did.”
Not long afterward, he returned to the locker room. Someone tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he truly dislikes some parts of his job as much as it appears. He shrugged.
“Depends on how you look at it,” he said before looking away.
How Newton looks at things, according to some, is a larger concern than whether defenses have figured him out. Rivera said he believes in Newton’s ability to adapt physically but that Newton doesn’t realize how many people are reading into the way he carries himself.