The sneers and snickers are decreasing. The contempt and ridicule are fading. Skeptics are becoming believers, and pessimists are becoming fewer.
Decades in the making, a fundamental change has seeped into the NFL, altering points-of-view on the sidelines and in front offices: College-style offenses are no longer laughing matters.
Now the joke is on those who would dismiss the success of Washington’s Robert Griffin III, Seattle’s Russell Wilson and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick. They merely quarterback half of the NFC’s playoff field. Carolina’s Cam Newton, another dual-threat signal-caller, owns the NFL record for career passing yards through two seasons (7,920), topping Peyton Manning’s 7,874 yards set in 1998-99.
Manning still gets it done the old-fashioned way with Denver, as does Tom Brady with New England and Matt Ryan with Atlanta. But adding the ability of pocket passers to the mobility of scrambling QBs — like, say, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers — has produced hybrids previously known to flourish primarily in college.
The performances of RG3, Wilson and Kaepernick in college-influenced offenses have made the NFL reconsider long-held beliefs that Saturday-style attacks can’t work on Sundays.
That’s why Oregon’s Chip Kelly is one of the league’s hottest coaching candidates, with teams envisioning the same success that the Seahawks’ Pete Carroll and the 49ers’ Jim Harbaugh enjoyed upon leaving USC and Stanford, respectively.
No NFL coaches (and few college coaches) run systems as unorthodox as Kelly’s frenetic, spread offense. Whether the exact, same approach would work in the pros is debatable. “I don’t know,” Kelly told reporters Wednesday. “I haven’t been there.”
But elements of the spread have made considerable inroads, evolving from the Dolphins’ old Wildcat, to the Broncos’ Tebowmania, to the Redskins’ pass/run options.
“There’s a lot of ways to play football,” Kelly said. “Trends go one way and the other. I said this a long time ago, if you weren’t in the room with Amos Alonzo Stagg and Knute Rockne when they invented this game, you stole it from somebody else. Any coach is going to learn from other people and see how they can implement it in their system. Anything you do has to be personnel driven. You have to adapt to the personnel you have.”
However, that hasn’t been the NFL’s way.
In the NFL, personnel have been forced to adapt to the system or find other lines of work. Option QBs often weren’t given a chance, converted to halfbacks and wideouts immediately after the draft — if they were drafted at all.
Parts of the reluctance made sense. Not many “running” quarterbacks are equally skillful passers like RG3 and Kaepernick. The latter, who played at Nevada under Chris Ault, creator of the “Pistol” offense, is the only NCAA Division I quarterback to throw for more than 10,000 yards and rush for more than 4,000 yards in a college career. Kaepernick’s added dimension led Harbaugh to draft him in 2011 and name him the starter in November.
Exposing the quarterback to more punishment is another reason the NFL has been wary of options and designed runs. Unlike players at other positions, QBs don’t come out based on the situation. They don’t come out for breathers. They don’t come out unless they’re injured or playing so awfully the backup can’t do worse.
But fear of an injured QB hasn’t stopped college coaches from rolling the dice, and it hasn’t stopped the Redskins from sending Griffin around the end. Mike Shanahan trusts that RG3 is wise enough and athletic enough to remain out of harm’s way — at least as much as can be reasonably expected against violent defenders with bad intentions.
Considering the evolution of athletes, in general, and quarterbacks, in particular, the NFL would be foolish to maintain its blanket indictment of college-style offenses and multiskilled signal-callers.
Yes, quarterbacks need to be handled with more care than fullbacks, but there’s no reason to make them totally one-dimensional. When extraordinary talents line up behind center, only a negligent coach won’t tailor his offense accordingly.
“It’s interesting that three or four years ago, or maybe even five years ago, when colleges really started to diversify offense, the talk in the NFL was that it would never work,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said Wednesday on the Tim Brando Show. “But what I see [now] is NFL coaches evaluating college talent and saying, ‘Wow, why are we not doing this?’
“I think over half the teams in the NFL are going to be running this style of offense [five years from now].”
Less than half the teams can field pure pocket passers the likes of Manning and Brady. Less than half can field dynamic dual-threats the likes of RG3 and Kaepernick.
But every team has to find ways to move the ball, no matter what the offense looks like.
• Deron Snyder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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