They burst onto the scene in dazzling fashion last season, heralded as representatives of the new breed of NFL quarterback.
Boasting sprinter speed and rifle-strong passing arms, Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick ranked among a select group of young quarterbacks that coaches, teammates, analysts and fans touted would revolutionize the position.
Directing the increasingly popular read-option offense, they kept defensive coordinators up at night. Griffin, the second overall pick of the 2012 draft, had the finest statistical season in league history for a rookie quarterback and led the Washington Redskins on an improbable march to their first NFC East title in 13 seasons. Kaepernick, after watching from the sideline as a rookie in 2011, took Alex Smith’s job as the starting quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers and led a charge to the Super Bowl, where they fell short against the Baltimore Ravens.
As both young guns entered their second seasons as starters, the expectations heightened.
The NFL’s formula for determining opponents had designated the Redskins and 49ers to meet this season because of their first-place finishes. But because of the quarterback’s storybook campaigns, the league’s schedule-makers put the Week 12 meeting on the national stage of “Monday Night Football.” The matchup was predicted at the season’s outset as a potential preview of the NFC championship game.
But encores are rarely so simple in the NFL.
“Based on what happened last year, the Packers went out and played [San Francisco] in the playoff game, and they were absolutely humiliated and embarrassed. They got steam-rolled, and Kaepernick ran all over the place on them,” said Rich Gannon, an analyst for CBS and a former NFL quarterback. “So the entire defensive coaching staff jumped on a plane, flew down to College Station, Texas, spent a couple days with the Texas A&M coaching staff, learning all about the zone-option read and how to defend it, all that kind of stuff. Other teams have done the same thing. . . .
“I think that speaks a little bit to what’s gone on this offseason. With Kaepernick and RGIII and Russell Wilson and those guys running around, I think you saw defensive coaches adjusting their schemes and making sure they had an answer for them. I think that’s had an impact.”
Griffin, coming off the January reconstruction of his right knee, has struggled in his sophomore campaign. He’s on pace to surpass last season’s passing totals in yards and touchdowns. But he has 10 interceptions in 10 games — already double his total for the entire 2012 season. The impressive accuracy displayed as a rookie (65.6 percent) has diminished. Griffin has completed just 59.7 percent of his passes while also seeing his quarterback rating plunge from 102.4 to 83.6.
As a result, the Redskins’ offense has lacked consistency. The team ranks first in the league in rushing and sixth in total yards but only 13th in scoring as points have come in spurts bracketed by droughts.
More importantly, the wins have not come. Washington enters Monday’s game with a 3-7 record. The team did open Griffin’s rookie season with a 3-6 record before kicking off its electrifying, season-saving 7-0 run. But unlike last season, when the Redskins mainly needed their defense to play better, the problems are more plentiful.
Meanwhile, Kaepernick’s 49ers opened the season 6-2, but they have lost their past two outings. Like Griffin, Kaepernick’s effectiveness appears to have diminished in Year 2. After completing 62.4 percent of his passes while throwing for 10 touchdowns and three interceptions last season, his completion percentage his dipped to 56.2 (31st in the league) and he has thrown seven interceptions to 11 touchdowns. Kaepernick, who has averaged just 180 passing yards per game, also has seen his quarterback rating dip from 98.3 to 81.8.
On the ground, Griffin hasn’t consistently posed the threat he did last season when he rushed for seven touchdowns while averaging 6.8 yards per carry. It wasn’t until the second month of this season that he began using his legs as a weapon again. He is averaging 5.2 yards per carry but has no rushing touchdowns.
Kaepernick has fared better, with three touchdowns and an average of 6.0 yards per carry a year after posting five touchdowns and an average of 6.6.
While opposing defenses have a better understanding of pistol formations and read-option plays, a number of other factors have led to each quarterback’s statistical drop-off.
Gannon, like Redskins coaches, attributes Griffin’s perceived regression to offseason and preseason preparation lost to rehab time. Rather than being able to use that time to refine his technique and sharpen up for the season, Griffin had to do much of that during the first month of the regular season.
“It’s a little different because he missed all of the preseason with his knee and he’s had to adjust his game and the timing and rhythm and things were clearly a factor first,” Gannon said. “But now I think you see a guy that’s playing a lot better and with more consistency.”
Gannon added that the Redskins as a whole are “not that good in some key areas. Defensively they’ve given up 33 points a game in the last month, so that all has an impact.”
Kaepernick’s struggles seem to stem from changes and a lack of health around him.
“I know his receiving corps has been banged up. He’s had some guys injured,” Redskins linebacker London Fletcher said. “He hasn’t had his number one receiver in [Michael] Crabtree, Mario Manningham just came back, and so that hurts you, having lost them. They also lost Delanie Walker [to free agency]. He was a big part of their passing game last year — no longer there. So you’re talking about some guys that were big-time targets for him. That probably plays a part in his struggles in the passing game.
“But he’s still a play-maker. You have to be mindful of him both as a passer and a runner.”
Defenses have used similar tactics to try to limit Griffin and Kaepernick. Goal No. 1 is to make them one-dimensional. Then, while forcing the quarterbacks to throw, the defensive coordinators aim to slow them down by making them think more.
“With both guys, you talk to defensive coaches, and they want to set the edge and keep them from being able to run all over the place, and they want to make them function as a pocket passer,” Gannon said. “Make them function as an NFL passer — force them to sit back there, make contested throws, the tough decisions — and don’t let them run all over the place creating havoc. . . . Any young quarterback, you’re trying to challenge him.”
Although both quarterbacks still pose threats with their legs, Gannon surmises that teams will use less of the read option going forward because of the injury risks. He believes it will still be used as the occasional change-up, however.
Former NFL coach Jon Gruden, who will call the game for ESPN on Monday night, shared similar sentiments and believes Griffin and Kaepernick will have to further evolve as passers to define themselves as elite quarterbacks.
“I think they’re going to have to prove that they can throw the football and do some other things besides the read option,” Gruden said in an interview with ESPN Radio. “I think that’s the beauty of Cam Newton and Carolina: The option is just a small part of a big package of plays. And I think that maybe they’re relying on that pistol and the read option perhaps a little bit too much. I think you’ve got to utilize your other personnel to really succeed and sustain in pro football, and I think the 49ers and the Redskins will look to do that here in the coming weeks.”
Although statistics indicate otherwise, 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh believes his quarterback remains just as effective as he was last season. He also believes Kaepernick has done well handling the new challenges. Harbaugh said the same applies to Griffin.
“We don’t feel Colin Kaepernick is struggling. I think he’s playing very good football,” Harbaugh said. “And watching RGIII on tape, I feel the same way about him. They’ve been a very productive offense. They put points on the board. They move the football and score points against everybody that they play.”
Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan acknowledges growing pains on Griffin’s part but also praised his quarterback, most notably his response to adversity.
“You take a situation like this and you get better from it or worse, and I don’t think Robert has shied away from anything. I think he steps into each week and tries his hardest, and whether he plays good or bad, I think in the long run he gets better from each week.”
Kaepernick also turns a deaf ear to the critics.
“I don’t worry about that. I worry about coming in here, working and getting ready for the game,” he said this week. “That’s just how I’ve always treated things.”
Griffin has a similar approach.
“Keep chopping wood. You’ve got to keep pushing forward,” he said. “Once again, never change who you are. Come to work every day with a smile, upbeat, get guys to play and make sure no one ever quits. That’s the main thing — make sure we all go out there with the same goal, same mind-set, and that’s to win.”
Regardless of expectations for their sophomore campaigns, it’s premature to classify either passer, Gannon said. There’s plenty of football left in the season — and in their careers — and the positive signs so far serve as causes for optimism more than concern.
“The problem is, after six games or eight games or 10 games, we want to say this is who this guy is or this guy’s going to be the next great quarterback,” he said. “But let these guys develop. Let them go through the growing pains. Let them go through adversity and see how they handle that before we start to classify them as elite quarterbacks or anything other than what they are right now.”
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