If you’re like me, you’ve been captivated by Robert Griffin III’s sensational play for the Redskins this season, amazed as the best-case projected scenario for him coming out of Baylor (equally deadly throwing the ball and on the run) is coming true before our very eyes. He’s completing 70 percent of his passes. He’s breaking off long runs (some spectacularly long) with regularity. He’s single-handedly making the Redskins relevant.
And it makes us wonder a bit about that other rookie quarterback, the one taken ahead of Griffin in the draft and thought to be the next big thing throughout his college career: Andrew Luck of the Colts. Luck’s had some terrific moments, don’t get us wrong – his 362-yard performance and late rally against the Packers, his running for two touchdowns this past Sunday to beat the Browns – but the raw numbers (especially that 53.6 completion percentage) just don’t come close to RGIII. And I’ll admit, despite reminding myself that this is only one part of his rookie season, that it’s way too early to jump to any kind of conclusion – I’ve wondered whether maybe the Colts wouldn’t rue the day they passed on RGIII.
Well, I was reminding myself it’s early for a reason.
The New York Times‘ NFL blog today published an item on the Griffin vs. Luck comparison, and why those raw numbers I mentioned earlier are misleading. Griffin’s been terrific by any measure, but somewhat stunningly, according to ESPN’s proprietary (and now virtually ignored) quarterback rating statistic the company debuted last year, QBR, Luck’s been slightly better.
One possible reason for this could be that QBR is, like all others, an imperfect stat. But there’s plenty good about it too, and in the Times post, author Chase Stuart explains why Luck is (seemingly) lagging way behind Griffin, except in QBR. Some of what QBR determines is questionable (i.e. Luck getting extra credit thanks to the metric’s “Clutch Index,” arguably its most problematic component). Other factors, though, make perfect sense, when explained by Stuart. Chief among them, to me: average distance of throws.
Luck‘s average pass attempt has traveled 10.2 yards past the line of scrimmage, the longest average pass distance in the league (this was before “Monday Night Football”; Jay Cutler was second at 9.9 entering the game). Griffin averages 7.9 yards downfield per pass attempt, slightly below the league average of 8.2.
And Luck’s long average pass distance isn’t simply a product of throwing lots of incomplete passes down the field. His average pass distance on completions is 8.6 yards past the line of scrimmage, also highest in the N.F.L. (Cutler was fourth at 8.3 entering Monday night). Griffin’s completions come an average of 5.8 yards from the line of scrimmage, well below the league average of 6.6.
So, that helps explain a lot of why Luck’s numbers don’t look especially impressive to the naked eye: he’s being asked to do some really tough stuff as a rookie on a rebuilding team. But that raises some other questions, including one posed by Stuart: why, exactly, is Luck being asked to rely so heavily on the long ball? After all, about the only knock on him anyone could come up with as a pro prospect (and this was splitting the finest of hairs) is that he doesn’t have elite-level arm strength. He has plenty – enough to make deep throws like this – but it’s not a Stafford-like cannon.
That’s not to say Bruce Arians doesn’t know what he’s doing – I’m pretty sure he’s a substantially better offensive coordinator/quarterback coach than me. Plus, since Chuck Pagano had to take a leave of absence with leukemia, Arians has done one hell of a job as Colts interim head coach. But it doesn’t mean every play call is on the money, and the Steelers did let him go after last season, so his methods have been called into question before. Looking at his rookie quarterback’s raw numbers, it’s hard to wonder if Arians wouldn’t be well served to at least tinker with the way Luck’s being used.
But that’s not the only question raised here.
We also can’t help but look at RGIII’s below-league-average yards-downfield-per-pass-attempt-and-completion numbers and think: this is the same guy Shutdown Corner’s Doug Farrar raved about being “especially accurate on all kinds of deep balls.” This is the same guy who uncorked that 30-yard pass to Santana Moss to give the Redskins a brief late lead this past Sunday. Not quite an 80-yard bomb, but it traveled a long way in the air, and the precision on the pass could practically bring tears to a quarterback coach’s eyes.
So should Luck’s and Griffin’s passing roles perhaps be reversed? Is Mike Shanahan being too conservative with what he’s letting Griffin do through the air? Yeah, more long balls equals more risk, but you know what else is risky? Having your prized young quarterback run 10 or so times every game. RGIII’s doing that. Why not see what he’s got on those long throws a little more often?
Either way, the ultimate takeaway here is that Colts fans don’t have much to worry about. Luck’s numbers don’t look like much at first, but over time, they ought to get better. Peyton’s completion percentage wasn’t great his rookie year, either. Redskins fans still have a ton to be excited about, and I’m still a little skeptical of any metric that rates Luck more highly than Griffin thus far, but Stuart convinced me that in time, Colts fans will be pretty ecstatic about what they’ve got, too.