With a pair of Shanahans, Mike and Kyle, at the helm, Robert Griffin III had a fantastic rookie season. If not for injuries he sustained early in his career, it’s very likely that Washington would have had its franchise quarterback for the 2010's. I just want to get that out of the way before I really start riling up the masses.
But with all this talk about a possible return to the NFL, we need to look closer at that breakout 2012, warts and all.
Griffin’s 2012 season, which saw the Baylor product throw for 3,200 yards and 20 touchdowns while rushing for 815 and another seven scores, often gets talked about as one of the best rookie seasons of all-time. I can’t help but think that that’s just not true. Griffin’s rookie season is often looked back on with rose-colored glasses because of the enormous potential fans watched fade away as his injuries racked up later in his career. A deeper look at his rookie season reveals that Griffin, while talented, likely wouldn’t have reached the heights many assume he would have had he stayed healthy. Rather, Griffin likely would’ve remained a solid starter with some noticeable drawbacks.
Let me explain.
When people talk about Griffin’s rookie season, it often revolves around his ability to make tight-window throws and do damage with his legs. The latter is absolutely true. There’s no denying that Griffin’s mobility was electric and game-changing, but when forced to sit in the pocket and make throws, Griffin wasn’t as great as our nostalgic minds make him out to be. Much of his success came on play-action, and due to the prevalence of the read-option during the early 2010s, it was incredibly effective. I’m not saying it’s not effective now as well, but teams are not running play-action nearly as often as they were in 2012.
For example, the Buffalo Bills drew up 196 play-action passes in 2021 — the most of any team in the NFL. 29.92 percent of their passes were from play-action. In 2012, Washington ran play-action 42 percent of the time. FORTY-TWO PERCENT! That was seven percent higher than the next closest teams (Seattle and Minnesota) and their rates (35 percent) were also the highest percentages since play-action started getting tracked in 2005. Furthermore, Carolina also matched the previous high, opting for play-action on 33 percent of their passes in 2012.
Seattle had Russell Wilson. Carolina had Cam. Minnesota had… Christian Ponder, but the presence of Adrian Peterson in the backfield made play-action much more effective. Basically, in the early 2010s, if you had a mobile quarterback or a generational halfback, you were running play-action at obscenely high rates.
I don’t blame Washington for running all that play-action either. They were incredibly effective when doing so. They topped the league in Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) at 66.7 percent on play-action in 2012. No other team was above 60 percent. However, Washington’s DVOA on regular passes was just five percent, one of the lowest in the NFL that year.
Now, you might be thinking: “Who cares? As long as RG3 was in Mike Shanahan’s play-action heavy system, he’d be great.” Correct, but in situations late in games where his team was down one or two scores, how would he fare without play-action? How did he perform in situations where the defense knew a pass was coming?
Here were RG3's stats during that 2012 season when trailing or tied in the fourth quarter:
56-of-92 (60.9 percent)
6.0 yards per attempt
165 yards rushing
1 rushing TD
Good ball control, but pretty mediocre numbers otherwise. That 6.0 yards per attempt is particularly frightening considering that throughout 2021 only Trevor Lawrence posted a worse yards-per-attempt (5.9) when trailing in the fourth among 2021 starters than 2012 RG3. In fact, the next closest quarterback in those situations was Ryan Tannehill (6.5), and he averaged a full half yard more per attempt than Griffin did.
Furthermore, in 2012, Griffin threw 13 passes that went for 30-plus yards. All but three were off play-action, and one of those three was a double pass, so really, Griffin only completed two huge throws on normal dropbacks during his “legendary” rookie season. That’s not a good percentage. Eventually, teams were going to figure out how to defend that Washington play-action. With more film on their offense with Griffin at the helm, it was only a matter of time before opposing defenses knew when to bite on the handoff and when not to. Griffin definitely had moments outside of play-action passing that put his potential and arm talent on full display, but those moments didn’t happen consistently enough to give me faith that he would’ve been an elite quarterback.
Was the potential there? Absolutely. No one is denying his talent. His mobility would’ve kept him relevant in the NFL for a long time even if his passing prowess wasn’t all that great, and this was also just his rookie season. He still had time to develop into a more well-rounded passer. That being said, he overly relied on play-action for most of his explosiveness through the air. I know injuries played a big role in his downfall, but I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that Griffin’s career really took a turn for the worse in 2014, the year after offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan left DC.
Griffin deserved the Rookie of the Year in 2012. His rookie season was fantastic, but overrated. Both statements can be true. I just don’t think that if Griffin stayed healthy, he would’ve turned into a perennial MVP candidate like some people seem to think. Fight me about it.