As an otherwise unspectacular Friday night gave way to Saturday morning, Twitter timelines, cell phone screens, and ESPN’s Bottom Line were suddenly ablaze: Breaking News . . . Redskins trade for the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft, sending first-round picks in 2012, 2013, and 2014 along with a second-round selections in 2014 to the St. Louis Rams. With the Colts almost assured of selecting Stanford’s Andrew Luck No. 1 overall, the trade meant that Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III would be the next quarterback of the Washington Redskins and, hopefully, solve a decades-long void at the NFL’s most important position. The symbolism was almost too perfect – as the news rang out about the trade, Saturday, March 10th was barely a few minutes old – a new day, in more ways than one. As we all know, that draft pick did turn into RGIII, and the ride that followed can be described as nothing else but magical. In one season, a 22-year old kid changed the face of a franchise, a feat that is plenty spectacular in its own right. What’s more? He changed the face of the NFL in the process.
Imagine for a second that for whatever reason, the trade between the Redskins and Rams never went through. As MWM and the front office explained after their 4th round selection of Kirk Cousins, the Michigan State quarterback was the second-rated quarterback on their big board. The coaching staff worked closely with him at the Senior Bowl and felt comfortable with his leadership qualities and his propensity to run their offense. So, in a world where the Redskins do not draft Robert Griffin III with the second overall pick, it seems likely Redskins fans would have seen Captain Kirk running the offense long before his debut in relief against the Falcons. Although we will all forever remember Kirk’s game-tying two-point conversion dash against the Ravens, the gameplan against Cleveland suggests a Kirk Cousins-led offense would have looked much more similar to the Kyle Shanahan model we saw from his Houston days through his first two years as Nick Crozier in the District. That means no pistol, no zone-read, and less sleepless nights for every defensive coordinator in the NFC East. So what, right?
As it does every January, the NFL playoffs have taken center-stage over the last few weeks and occupied the collective conscious of every football fan in America. With each passing round, we’ve been inundated with stories from ESPN, FOX, and CBS chronicling the amazing feats of San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick and Seattle’s Russell Wilson. Frame after frame of footage, and admiringly breathless commentator after admiringly breathless commentator – cough, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, cough – explained to us how these two quarterbacks, their head coaches, and their offensive coordinators had revolutionized the offensive side of the NFL game. Absent in all of this talk? One mention of Kyle Shanahan and the Burgundy Bullet, RGIII. Again, so what, right?
Following a deflating week 9 loss to the Panthers, the Redskins were a pedestrian 3-6, their playoff hopes again in the toilet. The shining light in what seemed like another season of darkness – Robert Griffin III and the offense Kyle Shanahan built around him had legitimately taken the NFL by storm. RGIII was putting up record numbers for a rookie at the quarterback position and twisting sophisticated NFL defenses into pretzels in the process. As every Tom, Dick and Harry with a microphone tells us every week – “The NFL is a copycat league” – so someone was bound to try and duplicate the Skins’ offensive innovations. Oddly, the copycats were unlikely admirers.
At the midpoint of the NFL season Pete Carroll and his Seahawks were 4-4, and fighting to stay in the playoff conversation. Carroll’s pedigree is defense. A collegiate safety at the University of the Pacific, he found his coaching niche in the NFL on the defensive side of the football, coaching defensive backs for for the Bills and Vikings before later becoming the defensive coordinator for the Jets and 49ers. True to his background, Carroll built his Seahawks team around a solid defense and an offense that successfully ran the football and controlled the clock.
Through the first half of the 2012 campaign, not much had changed. Seattle’s defense was stingy and Marshawn Lynch wore down opposing defenses. Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson had been a nice surprise – a somewhat overlooked 4th-round pick, Wilson was a capable athlete with good leadership skills who was adept at managing the game and keeping Carroll’s defense fresh. Then, something changed. Instead of asking his rookie quarterback to manage the offense, Carroll increased Wilson’s responsibilities, incorporating zone-read aspects to utilize his agility and elusiveness, while also creating tougher reads for opposing linebackers on play-action. With a larger role in the offense, Wilson and the Seahawks flourished, finishing the season by going 7-1 and barreling into the playoffs as one of the NFL’s hottest, and scariest teams.
In a Rookie of the Year race that seemed pre-ordained to come down to #1 vs. #2, Luck vs. Griffin, the favorite now seemed to be the kid that former N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien shunned to Wisconsin in favor of Mike Glennon. Would Pete Carroll and the Seahawks have been so bold in their offensive adjustments without the Burgundy-clad savant in the District and his boy wonder offensive coordinator?
Just down the coast, the 49ers were heading into their week 10 tilt with the NFC West rival Rams at a strong 6-2, looking primed for a return to the playoffs. Holding the reins of the offense was former number one overall pick and incumbent starter from a team that finished painfully short of representing the NFC in the Super Bowl last season, Alex Smith. After starting the game 7-8 for 72 yards and a touchdown, Smith was knocked out of the game with a concussion. Running the gameplan installed for an offense engineered by Smith, second-year backup Colin Kaepernick finished the game for the Niners and performed admirably, throwing for 117 yards and improvising when the pocket collapsed to rush for 66 yards. He showed flashes, but was he ready to command a Super Bowl contender?
Head coach Jim Harbaugh traded up in the 2nd Round of the 2011 draft to select Kaepernick, a dual-threat quarterback out of Nevada who had run Chris Ault’s patented pistol offense with record-setting success. In his tall lanky quarterback, he saw game-breaking potential that his current starter did not have. However, prototypical Harbaugh quarterback, Kaepernick was not. From his playing days in NFL stops like Chicago and Indianapolis, to his days coaching Andrew Luck at Stanford, Harbaugh employed a pro-style system with I-formations, power running, and drop-back quarterbacks. To appropriately use all of Kaepernick’s talents, there would need to be a change of philosophy. Turns out, Harbaugh also found some game tape of an NFL offense running concepts that looked strikingly similar to the offense his young backup had excelled in as a college standout. With Alex Smith still recovering from the concussion suffered against the Rams, Kaepernick got the start on Monday Night Football against the vaunted Chicago Bears defense. After throwing for 234 yards and two touchdowns, he took hold of the quarterback position for the 9ers and he has yet to let go.
In a scheme that looks strikingly similar to the one we’ve grown accustomed to #10 running to perfection, Kaepernick has flourished, leading his team to the Super Bowl in New Orleans and setting an NFL record for rushing yards by a quarterback in a single game in the process. As he trademarks “Kaepernicking” this week as he and 9ers prepare for the Harbowl in Nawlins, let’s hope Colin and the boys from the Bay give the appropriate nod to their counterparts in the nation’s capital.
Is there any empirical proof that the Seahawks and 49ers shifted their offensive philosophies because of the success Robert Griffin III, Kyle Shanahan and the Redskins offense were having in Washington? Not one bit. But, it’s our contention that the imprint left by RGIII this year did not simply cover the area affectionately known to its residents as the DMV. Instead, the Robert’s play, and the offense that was crafted around him changed the way “football people” in the NFL looked at the offensive side of the football and gave players like Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick not just an opportunity to play in the NFL, but to become superstars. While no one on the national stage or from those respective franchises is acknowledging that connection, it bears discussion and acclaim. As so many folks in the District, Marlyand, and Virginia have already learned, Robert Griffin III is not just a quarterback, he is a movement – a revolution. To all those who grab hold of his cape and take flight – remember – pay heed to RGIII.