What we’re watching in rookie playoff phenomenons Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck is the weaponizing of the quarterback position. We all know the classic NFL prototype: a tall, briefcase-carrying guy whose good mind and strong arm are accompanied by that faint-praising word “mobility.” In Griffin, Wilson and Luck, we’re seeing an entirely new balance of the qualities that make a great quarterback. They are the crest of a revolutionary wave that has been forming for some time. With their unprecedented blend of brain, body, leadership and work ethic, Griffin, Wilson and Luck are redefining what we mean by the phrase “the whole package.”
Take the computational vision of a Peyton Manning and the spearing delivery of a Tom Brady, throw in the study habits of an “A” student and the personal magnetism of a cult leader, and then load all of those qualities into a physique with the ideal split between upper and lower body, with some of the most alive, electric legs on the field.
What you have is the perfect quarterback organism, an unkillable alien with acid for blood. Which is why the Washington Redskins’ normally tight-lipped coach, Mike Shanahan, went out of his way this week to make a point that rookie quarterbacks simply don’t rack up victories like these guys are doing. Shanahan has studied the drafts of the past 40 years, and according to his figures, just seven rookie quarterbacks had winning seasons. Now we have three of them at once in Griffin, Wilson and Luck. And it’s why Shanahan is so expansive talking about Griffin, whom he clearly views as the rarest talent of this new category.
“I don’t think anybody in the history of the league has played at his level,” Shanahan said. “At least over the last 40 years, when I take a look at the numbers and what he has done, I don’t think anybody has played at his level. As we’ve talked about before, he’s got a unique skill set — his ability to throw, drop back, play action, put a threat on a defense with his running ability — and he will just get better and better. He’s just scratching the surface. And the reason I say that is because he works at it.”
Griffin’s former coaches tried to explain this to me last summer when he was still just a prospective draft choice. Given that he had yet to play an NFL down, their praise for him then sounded like extravagant hyperbole, based in affection and excitement. It turns out this is who Griffin is and always has been. Every coach Griffin has ever played for, at every level, gives precisely the same assessment.
Art Briles, his coach at Baylor, would go into the weight room on a Saturday night or a Sunday morning, and there would be Griffin, doing extra workouts.
“He’s extremely gifted athletically and has tons of natural ability, but the great thing about Robert is he isn’t satisfied living on ability. He wants to be a great technician, great from a schematic standpoint, and put the two together and he’ll be the best there is,” said Briles, who added that Griffin will be “unparalleled at his position.”
And that was before the season started.
Listen to Shanahan shower praise on Griffin and Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll rave about Wilson, and it’s clear we can officially junk the prototype. Luck has the height at 6 feet 4 , but he’s also a 4.6 runner with five rushing touchdowns. Wilson is only 5-11, but he clocks a time of 4.4, no slower than his back Marshawn Lynch, and is the equal of any tall pocket passer.
“We’re always looking for guys to have special dimensions and unique qualities, and he’s loaded with them,” Carroll says. “He just was off the charts in that regard, and we just had to get over the thought that everybody said he can’t play if you’re not taller, and obviously that’s not the case, not true.”
It’s tempting to say that extraordinary speed — the ability to break open a game by running the ball — is what makes Griffin and his peers such an evolutionary leap. Manning and Drew Brees run 4.8 in the 40, Brady a 5.2. Even Aaron Rodgers, at 4.7, is significantly slower than Griffin, at 4.38. John Elway ranks sixth among quarterbacks with 3,407 career rushing yards. A healthy Griffin could equal that total in about four seasons.
But it’s more complicated than that. These are not players who slide and move to create time to be better passers, or to offset deficiencies in accuracy. These guys are making a whole new range of decisions. They scan the field doing a whole new set of computations with their read options. They create new, shifting puzzles for defenses to solve, with sleights-of-hand that keep everyone guessing where the ball is going. They lead offenses that have the sweep of a prairie fire, with the ability to shear off huge chunks of yardage in a variety of ways. Delivering a pass might actually be the least dangerous thing they can do with the ball.
Their abilities are firing the imaginations of their coaches. Asked to describe how Wilson has opened up with the game for him, Carroll said, “He’s allowed us to really do everything that we can think of.”
So the verdict is in: Types are out; one-of-a-kinds are in. Two of them will be on display Sunday at FedEx Field.
For previous columns by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/
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