Rookie quarterbacks cannot just be wound up, handed a Tom Brady-level playbook and shoved onto the field if they are expected to succeed. Even the most talented, prepared rookie needs a game plan that augments his strengths, limits his need to make decisions and offers some easy, confidence-building passes.
Robert Griffin III had one of the greatest debuts of any rookie quarterback in history on Sunday: 320 passing yards, two touchdowns and a 40-32 win against a playoff-caliber opponent. Griffin's success was largely the result of a brilliant game plan by Mike and Kyle Shanahan, the Redskins' head coach and offensive coordinator. The Shanahans installed a shotgun, screen-heavy offense that looked much different from the system they traditionally run, a scheme that used misdirection and repetition to confuse the Saints and make their new franchise quarterback as comfortable as possible.
Options and Screens
The Redskins' offense looked like a collegiate offense on its first drive: lots of shotgun sets and wide-receiver screens, with a sprinkling of option runs.
Figure 1 shows the Redskins running a traditional zone-read option on second-and-10 in the first quarter. Griffin (10) takes the shotgun snap and offers the ball to running back Alfred Morris (46) as the offensive line blocks to the left. Griffin has the option of handing off to Morris or keeping the ball and running around right end. He makes his decision based on what the defensive left end does: If that defender crashes to stop Morris, Griffin keeps the ball. But if he "stays at home" to stop the quarterback keeper, Griffin hands off.
The Saints do not appear to be anticipating an option play. Not only does the end crash to stop Morris, but the entire defense flows with the offensive line, making it easy for tight end Niles Paul (84) and right tackle Tyler Polumbus (74) to scoop up and block a pair of would-be tacklers. Griffin has plenty of room to run, picking up 12 yards.
As in the last play, Griffin play-fakes to Morris, who runs right. The offensive line blocks in Morris' direction, and just as in the last play, the Saints flow with the blocking. Even Garcon appears to be blocking to the right at first, but he then turns and waits for a screen pass. The flow of the defense makes it easy for left tackle Trent Williams to climb out and block the one linebacker in position to stop Garcon, who weaves up the field for 12 more yards.
Teams use screen passes like these to make the defense "play honest" -- in other words, to keep them from blitzing heavily or stacking defenders against the run.
After the Garcon screen, the Saints decide to blitz, with a safety crashing the offensive right side (Figure 3). The Redskins are back in shotgun, this time with tight end Fred Davis (83) lined up as a blocking back. Yet again, Griffin play-fakes to Morris; this time, Davis, Morris and the blockers feign an inside run. Davis keeps the safety away from Griffin, who throws another screen pass to Garcon, who is completely uncovered at the line because of the blitz. The result: nine more passing yards.
Guess what the Redskins ran on the very next play? Another screen pass! Not to Garcon, who left the game briefly with a minor injury, but to Aldrick Robinson. The play was a mirror image of Figure 3, with Garcon in Robinson's spot, so there is no need for a new diagram. Robinson's five yards gave the Redskins 38 yards of offense on play-action options and screens, putting them in field-goal range while nullifying the Saints' blitz plans and getting Griffin acclimated to the speed and flow of an NFL game.
The Next Step
A quarterback who can complete nothing but screen passes is not going to last long, and NFL defenses get wise to gimmick-filled game plans pretty quickly. That's why the Shanahans opened up the offense once the option and screen threats were well established, giving Griffin the chance to complete passes downfield while still using play-action principles to create easy reads and open passing windows.
The Redskins started the third quarter in a shotgun formation similar to the ones we saw in earlier diagrams, with Davis as the blocking back. A close look at Figure 4 shows that the Saints are now playing "honestly" before the snap. There is now a defensive back head-up on the slot receiver, so there will be no easy screen passes.
The Redskins go about their usual business, with Griffin faking to Morris and Davis executing what looks like a kick-out block for a run off left tackle. Once again, this is play-action, but instead of flipping a quick screen, Griffin looks for Santana Moss (89) on a skinny post in the middle of the field. As in each of the previous diagrams, the Saints' linebackers bite on the run action, creating open space in the middle of the field. Griffin's arm strength and accuracy come into play on this throw, as Moss is covered fairly well, but a perfect strike nets 14 yards.
That play worked so well that the Redskins ran it twice in a row. Figure 5 shows the same formation, the same blocking and play-fake action, and roughly the same pass patterns. The Redskins now know that the Saints are frequently using man coverage on their wide receivers, and when the linebackers are sucked toward the line of scrimmage by run fakes, the cornerbacks have difficult assignments. Griffin throws another crisp pass, this time to Josh Morgan (15), who gains 21 yards. The Redskins take two big leaps toward another touchdown using virtually identical plays.
Why did the Saints keep falling for the same play-fake? First, that early option made them wary of the Griffin keeper. Second, the Shanahans are run-oriented coaches (by modern NFL standards, anyway), and it was only logical for the Saints to expect a massive dose of running plays when facing a rookie quarterback. The Redskins did run the ball a lot from formations like the ones diagrammed, and the Saints had success shutting those runs down early in the game. But the Saints did not expect a barrage of wide-receiver screens early in the game, and when they adjusted, the Redskins adjusted, too.
That was the beauty of the Redskins' game plan. It provided extra pass protection, with Davis and Morris helping to keep defenders away from Griffin. It used a handful of simple formations to disguise a variety of plays, and when a play was successful, the Redskins re-ran it. The game plan minimized Griffin's need to make decisions and kept the Saints from being able to blitz or set up complex coverage schemes.
None of this would have mattered if Griffin did not play so well. His execution was excellent. His throws were tight and accurate. Griffin can probably handle more complicated reads and pre-snap decisions than the ones he was assigned on Sunday, but he did not have to, because the Shanahans put him in position to both succeed and develop. The phonebook playbook can wait a few weeks. With baby steps like these, Griffin can go very far.