The 2012 season wasn’t just the Year of the Rookie Quarterback, it was the Year of the Running Quarterback. Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick hit the ground running, literally, as soon as they were inserted into the huddle, leading their teams to the playoffs with their feet as much as their arms, and igniting conversation about whether the pistol formation and read-option attack would revolutionize the NFL.
Griffin had a historic rookie season, scoring 27 total touchdowns against five interceptions while rushing for 815 yards for the Redskins. And it was only three months ago when ESPN’s Ron Jaworski said Kaepernick, who led the 49ers to within 5 yards of a Super Bowl victory, “could be one of the greatest quarterbacks ever.” Yes, ever.
Yet the two biggest stars of the 2012 season are two of the biggest duds in 2013, and have many folks around the NFL snickering that the read-option is just another gimmick that won’t have staying power.
RG3, coming off ACL surgery that prevented him from doing any football drills in the offseason and training camp, has been one of the league’s most disappointing players this year. His numbers are down across the board — his completion percentage has dropped by 6 percent, yards per attempt down a full yard, interceptions have increased from five to 11, average rush is down 1.5 yards, and he is two sacks away from matching last year’s total.
“Everybody can see it, he shouldn’t be playing,” 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks said after his team beat the Redskins last Monday night.
The Redskins are just 3-8 this year following a 10-6 season. Griffin has often deflected blame at teammates and at times acted like a spoiled brat. The seat under Griffin and coach Mike Shanahan is getting hotter with each loss (four in their last five games).
“Robert Griffin is learning how to play quarterback off the field, dealing with the media,” Herm Edwards of ESPN said. “I would hope some of these teammates help him to learn how to handle the situation he’s in.”
But Kaepernick isn’t doing much better, and he doesn’t have the injury excuse to fall back on. Kaepernick’s numbers are also down in several key areas — his completion percentage is also down by 6 percent, and he’s averaging a yard less per completion and rushing attempt. Kaepernick is 31st in the NFL in completion percentage, 41st in passing yards per game (185.2), and 41st in fourth-quarter passer rating, with just one touchdown against four interceptions.
The 49ers are at least still winning games — they’re 7-4 and hold the tiebreaker over the Cardinals for the No. 6 playoff seed — but they’re hardly the NFC powerhouse most people envisioned at the beginning of the season. And they’re often winning in spite of Kaepernick, not because of him.
The performances of the two young quarterbacks beg the question: Has the read-option and pistol offense fizzled as quickly as it exploded?
“I would argue that ultimately the read-option in the NFL will be part of an offense, but not an offensive foundation,” said NFL Films guru Greg Cosell, who has analyzed with coaches’ film every snap RG3 and Kaepernick have taken in the NFL. “Sometimes the read-option works very effectively. But I watch [Tampa Bay’s] Mike Glennon make anticipation throws. That’s a much better barometer of long-term success than watching Colin Kaepernick running 56 yards against the Packers in the playoffs last year.”
The 49ers have called fewer run plays for Kaepernick this year as they try to develop him as a pocket passer, and Griffin’s knee has clearly limited his running ability and prevented him from improving as a passer in the offseason.
“He’s not the same player, and you can see it,” ESPN’s Tim Hasselbeck said of Griffin. “On a designed running play, early in the football game, it’s essentially a zone read. Last year he exploded down the field on this play, this year he gets run down by Donte Whitner.”
Cosell also said it is clear that defenses have adjusted to the Redskins’ and 49ers’ passing games. They both used creative formations with two or even three players in the backfield alongside the quarterback, and created space for receivers with a liberal use of play-action passing. But defensive coordinators had eight months to study and prepare for this season.
“What would happen is all that backfield action would paralyze second-level defenders, and they were able to throw all of those quick in-breaking routes behind them and they’d be wide open. And those were one-read, easy throws,” Cosell said. “What you’ve seen more of this year is teams understanding those concepts and getting players in passing lanes, so those throws are not there as frequently. The Eagles did a tremendous job of that two weeks ago. Connor Barwin was right in the passing lane, and Griffin couldn’t throw the football.”
Cosell said that for Griffin and Kaepernick to realize their full potential, they have to improve as pocket passers. The 49ers have tried to adapt this season, but winning takes precedence over developing Kaepernick.
“I think they realize they need a drop-back pass game for him to take the next step, and they’re working through the learning curve right now,” Cosell said. “Long term, you want to develop Kaepernick, but they’re 7-4 and they think they can win the Super Bowl. You have to win the games.”
The Redskins, though, haven’t tweaked their offense at all, and it’s not as effective this year with Griffin slowed by his knee injury.
“I think you have to give the guy a mulligan, just to be fair, because he did not have an offseason,” Cosell said. “I would also argue that until he develops — and it’s not just him, it’s the coaching staff — until he becomes able to execute an NFL drop-back pass game with more NFL-type route combinations, that it doesn’t matter how well he runs. He would not become a high-level quarterback.”
LONG TIME COMING
Collins was a factor in win over Broncos
From the opening kickoff in Week 1 in Buffalo, Patriots rookies have been making an impact on both sides of the ball. There were Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompson catching touchdown passes. Logan Ryan making a pick-6 against the Jets. Chris Jones and Joe Vellano playing every snap for Vince Wilfork. Duron Harmon starting a couple of games at strong safety.
But one rookie who hasn’t made much of an impact is the first one drafted by the Patriots — Jamie Collins, taken in the second round, 52d overall. Until last week, that is.
Drafted as a hybrid linebacker who is athletic enough to rush the quarterback or cover a tight end, Collins barely saw the field in the Patriots’ first 10 games — just 95 of 716 defensive snaps (13 percent). Five times he played fewer than 10 snaps in a game, including only two of 57 snaps against the Panthers just two weeks ago. Through 10 games he had 15 tackles, and nothing else on his stat sheet.
But Collins finally had a major impact in last Sunday’s win over the Broncos. Though he only played 23 of 90 defensive snaps, he made them count, finishing with 10 tackles and a crucial pass breakup against Wes Welker on third down in overtime.
“I did OK, but you know, there’s always room for improvement,” Collins said. “It feels good, but when your number is called you’ve just got to go out there and do what you’ve got to do.”
Collins still isn’t making the impact that could be reasonably expected of a second-round pick, but Bill Belichick said he’s had no qualms with Collins’s development. Belichick said he used Collins more against Denver because of his coverage skills — Collins began his college career as a safety before beefing up and moving to linebacker and defensive line.
“Jamie has really been improving through the course of the season in the kicking game and defensively. We have no problem with him on the field at all,” Belichick said. “Sometimes it’s just a function of how things go in the game or maybe a guy has a certain role, and we obviously rolled Collins with [Brandon] Spikes in some passing situations in this game. There are a lot of passing situations when you play against Peyton Manning. Even though they had a lot of success running the ball, you still have to be very conscious of the passing game. [Collins] got a lot of playing time last week, but we have a lot of confidence in him in the game.”
DESERVING OF MENTION
Gronkowski should be in the MVP discussion
He probably won’t end up anywhere near an MVP ballot at the end of the season. And he seems to be in the news only for the wrong reasons, whether it’s talking about his various injuries or making an inappropriate joke that is caught on camera.
But if Aaron Rodgers is gaining buzz for MVP because of the impact his loss has had on the Packers’ season, then Rob Gronkowski deserves to be in the MVP discussion for the same reasons.
The Patriots have shown significant improvement in key offensive categories in the five games since Gronkowski returned from back and forearm injuries.
Through Week 6, they had scored 20.8 points per game with touchdowns on 40.9 percent of red-zone possessions. Tom Brady had completed just 56.9 percent of his passes, with eight touchdowns and four interceptions.
In the five games with Gronk, the Patriots have averaged 32.6 points while converting 64 percent of red-zone opportunities. Brady, meanwhile, has completed 63.4 percent of his passes in this five-game stretch, with nine touchdowns against three interceptions.
Overall, the Patriots have improved from 22d to sixth in the NFL in scoring in Gronk’s five games, and from 30th to 16th in red-zone offense, while Brady has completed at least 68 percent of passes in each of his last three games.
Gronkowski only played in about 50 percent of snaps in his first three games as the Patriots worked him back slowly. But he has 31 catches for 433 yards and three touchdowns so far, and he’s on pace for more yards and catches than last year, in one fewer game.
When asked where he feels Gronkowski’s presence, Brady replied, “everywhere.”
“He’s getting his football legs back, and it’s been fun to have him out there,” Brady said. “He’s a big presence. He’s tough to play against. Really, it helps the other guys get open, and the other guys help him get open, and the running game helps all the guys in the pass game get open.”
The NFL will be reviewing the actions of Mike Tomlin, and here’s hoping the league takes a hard-line stance on the Steelers coach.
For those of you too stuffed with turkey to pay attention Thursday night, Tomlin nearly collided with Ravens kickoff returner Jacoby Jones during a 73-yard return in the third quarter of Baltimore’s 22-20 win. Tomlin was standing on the sideline with his foot on the playing field and his back conveniently turned to the play as if he weren’t paying attention. But from this vantage point it seemed clear that he was trying to interfere with Jones and prevent him from returning the kickoff for a touchdown. Jones was forced to veer inside to avoid Tomlin and was tackled at the 27-yard line.
“I always watch the returns on the JumboTron,” Tomlin explained after the game. “It provides better perspective for me. I lost my placement as he broke free and saw at the last second how close I was to the field of play.”
The play is reminiscent of a 2010 game in which Jets strength coach Sal Alosi stood on the boundary and stuck out his knee to trip Dolphins special teams gunner Nolan Carroll as he covered a punt. The Jets fined Alosi $25,000 and suspended him for the remainder of the season (he left the team after the year and hasn’t returned to the NFL), and the NFL fined the team $100,000.
Tomlin will be subject to review this week, and many observers are calling for a fine. But we think a one-game suspension is appropriate, given the Alosi precedent. Tomlin is a head coach and should be held to high standards. His actions strike to the core of the integrity of the game and should not be tolerated.
Several Patriots current and past have been in a charitable mood over the last week with the holiday season kicking into full gear.
On Tuesday, Robert Kraft was joined by several Patriots in Roxbury to donate turkeys and Thanksgiving food baskets to 220 needy families, with donations from Goodwill and Stop & Shop. This was the 20th straight year the Patriots held their Thanksgiving-in-a-Basket program.
Former offensive lineman Joe Andruzzi’s foundation will hold its sixth annual gala Monday night at Gillette Stadium’s Putnam Club (joeandruzzifoundation.org). The dinner and live auction, which will feature Brady and several Patriots, will raise money to provide financial assistance for cancer patients and their families, and to support pediatric brain cancer research at Boston Children’s Hospital.
And Ryan Mallett will team with Gronkowski Dec. 11 for the Celebrity Gaming Challenge, in which fans can qualify to take on the two Patriots in several Microsoft Xbox One video games. Gronkowski will be supporting his Gronk Nation Youth Foundation, while Mallett will be supporting the Miller McNeil Woodruff Foundation.
To reach the finals and play against Gronkowski and Mallett, fans must first participate in preliminary rounds (register for $25 at www.CelebGC.com). The finals will be held at Royale nightclub Dec. 11, and tickets can be purchased for $20 at royaleboston.com/events.