Washington Redskins QB Robert Griffin III lined up in shotgun with a 3 WR set (Josh Morgan split wide left, Santana Moss in the slot to the right, and Aldrick Robinson split out wide to the right). RB Alfred Morris was situated in the backfield to Griffin’s right side, and TE Fred Davis found himself motioning across the formation in the H-back position, ending up just off the hip of RT Tyler Polumbus.
Griffin surveyed the defense in front of him. The New Orleans Saints were showing a cover-2 look in the secondary. They had four down-linemen shaded to the strong side of the formation, and two LBs lined up over LG Kory Lichtensteiger and RT Polumbus approximately 4-yards off the line of scrimmage – a standard nickel defense in the cover-2.
As snap came, the Redskins’ offensive line exploded off the ball operating an inside-zone blocking scheme to the right. Griffin prepared to hand the ball off to Alfred Morris, but when he observed the Saints DL, LBs, and FS Malcolm Jenkins react to the run, RGIII immediately pulled the ball back from Morris, turning the run into a playaction. Griffin got his eyes upfield to locate the next read. To his surprise, he noticed that instead of retreating into coverage, Malcolm Jenkins made his way to the backside of the formation, ready for the same QB-keeper that Griffin had already run several times that game. Instead of taking off around the weak side like before, RGIII decided to make the Saints pay for their lack of coverage in the secondary. He reset his feet, stood tall, and fired a strike to Josh Morgan who had easily gained separation against man-coverage because the Saints’ lone deep safety shaded toward Santana Moss, who had just attacked the seam the play before. A 21-yard gain had never come so easily.
This play was the perfect example of the modern triple-option operating at its finest. The play grew organically based on how the defense reacted after the snap. If the Saints did not crash down on the LOS, Griffin very easily could have handed off to Alfred Morris, allowing the punishing RB to go to work against an undermanned front six. Had Malcolm Jenkins stayed at home instead of operating in his “spy” technique on the weak side of the formation, Griffin could have kept the ball himself and turned upfield, getting free yards on the ground in the process. And if the Saints reacted as they did in respecting both Morris’ option-run to the right and Griffin’s option-keeper to the left, then Griffin could merely sit in the pocket and pick apart a secondary that was left with little help over the top. Three entirely different plays that the defense must account for with a single, concerted reaction. Three options for the QB to use at his discretion.
Fifteen years ago, this game used to be a chess match between the offensive coordinators and defensive coordinators. Gameplans and playcalling were all about adjusting to the opponent’s tendencies and attempting to get an edge by throwing out something that the opponent did not expect. It was a punch, counter-punch affair where innovative playcallers and supreme tacticians like Mike Shanahan, Bill Belichick, and Jon Gruden reigned supreme. For them, quarterbacks and MLBs were merely the “Queens” of their chess board.
Then in 1998, a QB by the name of Peyton Manning was drafted #1 overall by the Indianapolis Colts. As Manning was developing, the quarterback position along with the very tactical foundation of the offense found itself being redefined. No longer was the offensive playcaller forced to provide a definitive prognosis of the defense based on tendencies and an intimate knowledge of his opponent (of course, these things still help, though). Peyton Manning would be given three plays to relay to his team in the huddle. As Manning got under center, he could diagnose the defense based on their alignment, and choose one of the three play calls (usually one run and two passes from the same formation) that he thought would be the most effective against the defense he saw lined up across from him. This is different than a traditional audible because these are designed options for Manning to choose from. I hesitate to use the word “revolutionary” because this concept was used before Manning entered the league (both Jim Kelly and Dan Marino used it), but never before had it been used to the extent that the Colts used it. Peyton Manning made it a staple of the Indianapolis offense, and it was a large reason why they were so difficult to defend; you couldn’t predict what they were going to do because at any point before the snap, Manning could change to an entirely different play than what he walked up to the line of scrimmage with. Peyton Manning took the league by storm with this concept, setting NFL records along the way.
Soon enough, these philosophies found themselves incorporated into offenses around the league. Any team that has a trusted, veteran quarterback (Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, etc.) uses this concept as a way to gain an upper hand on their opponents. As offenses took off, defensive coordinators reacted by installing a similar philosophy on their side of the ball; they designated one player to modify the play call at the line of scrimmage based on what they saw out of the offensive alignment. London Fletcher, Ray Lewis, and Patrick Willis are prime examples of these types of defensive players. Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts modernized professional football for the better. Instead of simply being a chess match between the offensive and defensive coordinators, quarterbacks and MLBs (or other designated playcallers on the defense) joined their coordinators as the creative minds behind every move.
Up until 2011, every move in the chess match was being made before the snap of the ball. Peyton Manning and London Fletcher would do their best to diagnose what the other side of the ball was doing and use their best judgments to call the play accordingly, but once the ball was snapped, whatever play was called had to be run. Yes, some schemes utilized option-routes, allowing WRs to adjust their routes based on a specific coverage; however, a passing play was still just a passing play and a running play was still a running play. Then in 2011, the Carolina Panthers selected Cam Newton #1 overall. Newton came in with a similar pedigree to RGIII: Heisman trophy winner, electric athlete, strong arm, and physically capable of making every throw. Carolina opted to take advantage of their quarterback’s entire skillset, by implementing zone-read concepts into their offense. All of a sudden, Cam Newton was given the freedom to decide the direction of a running play after the snap based on how he saw the defense react. This concept had rarely been seen in modern professional football.
One year later, the Washington Redskins traded a king’s ransom in order to secure the rights to Robert Griffin III. And now we see why. Plays like the one described earlier give offenses a greater power to attack defenses than anything else in professional football’s deep history. While Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees still operate at the highest levels, none of them will ever be able to control the game the way Robert Griffin III’s potential suggests he will. They can’t. They’re forced to make a decision on the direction of a play well before Griffin is required to; that alone gives RGIII the inherent advantage in being able to diagnose and attack a defense. RGIII is not only able to modify the direction of a play after the snap, he’s allowed to choose the most fundamental foundation of any play while the play is going on: he can decide whether a run or a pass will be most effective based on the defense’s reaction to the offense’s developing steps. That is an unbelievable threat to defensive coordinators and playcallers that are stuck in their play call at the snap. Brady, Manning, and Brees cannot do the same – or at least they cannot do the same to the extent that RGIII can.
Now the option won’t be enough to launch Robert Griffin III into the elite echelon of QBs in this league. He’s still going to have to learn to play within Kyle Shanahan’s traditional West Coast offense. He’s going to have to be able to deliver from the pocket in the face of pressure. He’s going to have to win games when teams take away his legs. He’s going to have to become a great QB irrespective of his ability to run the option. The abilities that Manning, Brees, Brady, and Rodgers have will never be obsolete; in fact, they will always be a requirement for long-term success at the quarterback position. But if you can add the versatility that the option gives you to what those quarterbacks already have? Wow.
There is still a long way to go and he is far from a finished product, but everything about the offense displayed against the New Orleans Saints suggests that the price paid for RGIII was not only worth every penny, but was actually a steal. Mike and Kyle Shanahan bought themselves a QB that allows them to completely reinvent the way professional football is being played. Peyton Manning changed the game when he entered the league in 1998; Robert Griffin III is doing the same thing as we speak. Redskins fans, pay attention; we are witnessing the evolution of professional football as we know it.