Colin Kaepernick/Robert Griffin III woes: A spread QB quandary

NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics in his exclusive Inside the NFL Notebook, including (click on each link to go directly to the topic):

If you said, 30 months ago, that the Redskins and 49ers might head into 2016 ready to make another splash with another new quarterback, people probably would've responded by telling you that was about as likely as Donald Trump mounting a run for the presidency.

But here we are.

Robert Griffin III has been a healthy scratch -- denied even the right to dress on game day -- for the first four weeks of the 2015 season. And Colin Kaepernick has played so poorly over that stretch that he might have been willing to switch places with Griffin during parts of it.

The 2012 sensations are proving to be fool's gold, and fast. Their cases, to be sure, are not identical. Those who study this stuff believe Griffin's issues are from the neck up (mindset, inability to process) and Kaepernick's are from the neck down (passing ability). But they can be consolidated into a larger conundrum facing all NFL teams on an annual basis.

Both come from quirky college spread offenses. Griffin is a product of Baylor's simplistic -- yet highly effective -- air-raid system, where a playbook isn't necessary, and the offense stresses the defense horizontally, vertically and cardiovascularly. Kaepernick played in Nevada's option-based pistol, where a hard-to-defend run scheme sets up everything in the passing game.

So ... Is the college spread damaging the NFL?

"I don't buy into that," said UCLA coach Jim Mora, the former head man of the Falcons and Seahawks. "Good players are good players. I was lucky to work for Bill Walsh, and I can tell you, the traits he looked for in a quarterback, the top five things had nothing to do with system. What kind of decision maker is he? Does he have pocket mobility? Can he throw with accuracy? Is he a leader? Can he get under center and do three-, five- and seven-step drops? It's much more than system. System is overblown."

The problem, as Mora sees it, is time: "Look at the young man we have [UCLA true freshman Josh Rosen] -- he's a really good player with the potential to be a great one, and he's evaluated every week. I mean, he's played five games. He plays well, and he's the greatest. And when he doesn't, he's never gonna make it. Why can't we have more patience?"

Griffin was named the Redskins' starter before he took a practice snap for the franchise, and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan immediately went about installing a facsimile of Baylor's system to meet the demand to play him early. Likewise, Greg Roman installed Nevada's pistol concepts for Kaepernick when he unseated Alex Smith in the middle of the Niners' Super Bowl season.

At first, defenses didn't know what to do with themselves. Then they caught up. That forced the quarterbacks to develop a counterpunch -- which would only come through executing more traditional concepts. And they couldn't, turning the players back into the "projection" types they were cast as during the draft process.

"It's an issue on a lot of different levels," an AFC offensive coordinator said. "It's an issue from an evaluation standpoint -- people are gonna be 50-50 on the evaluation aspect. And Tennessee may be right on [Marcus Mariota], but for every one of those, there's going to be a bust. You don't wanna be picking that early, because you'll be guessing. That's why the Florida State quarterbacks [out of Jimbo Fisher's pro offense] keep getting drafted. Right or wrong, you see them doing things [in college] they'll have to do [in the NFL]."

That's not to say there aren't success stories.

Cam Newton certainly qualifies as one, with the Carolina Panthers having leaned on read-option concepts early, while gradually weaning the quarterback on to more traditional concepts. Alex Smith, over time, wound up becoming another example. Andy Dalton has adjusted, as well. Derek Carr seems to be on his way. If you wanna go further back, Drew Brees didn't exactly play in a pro-style offense at Purdue. And there's promise that Marcus Mariota can pull off the transition, too.

"To say you can't take a player from the spread and have him play well, it's just 100 percent not true," an NFC offensive assistant said. "Can they throw? Can they make good decisions? We can teach them, that's our job as coaches. I'm not worried about snaps from under center. If you can't do that, you can't play in the NFL. It takes five minutes to teach someone that. It's crazy to think that way."

That doesn't mean that, for NFL decision makers, there shouldn't be things that are non-negotiable. Accuracy is near the top of the list. As one NFC GM put it: "If a guy is struggling at the college level to hit targets, I'm not saying you don't draft him, but you shouldn't draft him into a spot where you'll rely on him."

Decision making, and being able to process quickly is right there, as well -- with Jay Gruden's offense in Washington providing a good illustration of this, in regards to Griffin. The offense is built to provide answers to everything for the quarterback -- it's the QB's job to find them. Griffin couldn't do so at the rate or speed that Kirk Cousins (or Colt McCoy) could. So Cousins is the starter.

And of course, there is the requisite physical ability (size, arm strength, etc.) that helps. From there, some players need more coaching than others. Some don't have the two qualities above.

"Kap never had the ability to do it, and RGIII never had the mental makeup," one AFC personnel exec said. "Those are traits, and it's different with those two. Now, I don't think Mariota will fail. He's accurate, he has touch, he has a good arm, he has the makeup. ... He came from the spread. But the kid, he was accurate in college, and he's still accurate."

In the coming years, we'll get a couple more interesting test cases. New York Jets rookie Bryce Petty is one player with traits coming from the Baylor system, who will have time to sit and develop. Ditto for New England Patriots sophomore Jimmy Garoppolo, who played in, more or less, the same scheme at Eastern Illinois.

So maybe they can develop in the shadows where Griffin and, to a lesser degree, Kaepernick couldn't.

And maybe now, because of all of this, NFL guys have to look a little harder to find the right guy. It doesn't mean the answers aren't there for them, and it doesn't mean the spread -- which was, at its root, a way for coaches at a competitive disadvantage to do more with less -- is ruining these guys for the pros.

"I don't agree with it," Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy said, in reference to people disparaging the spread. "It's no different than when the run-and-shoot was coming out. Those guys in the run-and-shoot, it was different, but they still had to make decisions, there was still ball placement. ... I've done it the same way for however many years I've been in the league. You evaluate them from here up, and you evaluate them from their throwing mechanics, from here down, and you evaluate their feet and their movement abilities."

And fair to say, McCarthy's done alright.

Four downs

1) Redskins' progress: Everything Washington has done over the last nine months has been aimed at getting bigger and stronger -- and sturdier. The difference is showing up in the running game, as the Redskinsrank first in rush offense, second in rush defense. It's showing up in ball control: Washington leads the league in time of possession and average time per possession. And to the larger point, it's showing up in worn-out opponents in the fourth quarter. Just before last week's game against the Eagles, Jay Gruden affirmed this dynamic to me: "You see it. Against Miami and St. Louis, you could see it. Last week, obviously, the Giants controlled the clock. They did a better job of sustaining their drives and keeping the offense off the field; they controlled the time of possession. But two of the three games, you could see we're wearing people down, and that's our intent every week, to try to do that." And lo and behold, it happened against the Eagles, with Kirk Cousins directing a grinding 15-play, 90-yard march to KO Philly in the final moments. "I feel like we are tougher, physically tougher -- in the weight room, I think they've gotten tougher. I think we've gotten bigger, stronger men in the building," Gruden continued. "I can say we wanna be tougher, but we need tough people and big people to back it up. And I think we've got that. Our offensive linemen are bigger. Our defensive linemen, obviously with (Terrance) Knighton, Ricky Jean (Francois), we're big up front on defense. We're going in the right direction." Gruden also spoke highly of Cousins to me, but the idea all along has been to support whoever the quarterback is by being better around him. That's really where the additions of GM Scot McCloughan, defensive coordinator Joe Barry and offensive line coach Bill Callahan have come to count. There's a rhyme and reason to the way the roster is being built, and the way the team is being coached. It might not mean that much this year, but it bodes pretty well for the future.

2) Chaos in South Beach: When the dust settles on everything that happened over the course of the last week in Miami, perhaps the biggest remaining question will lie here: How will Ryan Tannehill be affected? As Pro Football Talk detailed earlier in the week, the contract that the fourth-year quarterback signed in the offseason has escape hatches that the club can wiggle through starting after the 2016 season. The GM (Jeff Ireland), head coach (Joe Philbin) and offensive coordinator/old college coach (Mike Sherman) who were around when Tannehill was drafted are all gone, so the franchise is naturally less invested in him now than it was a couple years ago. And the practice incident in London is enough to make you at least wonder about his future in Miami. Here is how -- as I understand it, having communicated with multiple club sources -- things went down. The Dolphins were in drills where defensive players are to shadow offensive guys, but not make plays on the ball. So Tannehill threw one up, missed his target, and rookie DB Tony Lippett picked it off. Tannehill got after Lippett. Some defensive guys took exception with that. On the next play, linebacker Chris McCain ran through a "mock" cut block and broke up a pass. Tannehill's temper flared. McCain responded by saying that someone compensated at Tannehill's level should just get the ball there. And from there, defensive players were going after the ball. Is this the end of the world? No. The Dolphins' situation was combustible in London, given the potential of coaching upheaval (highlighted by defensive players going to now-former coordinator Kevin Coyle asking for scheme changes), and so this wasn't a normal day. Still, there are fair questions to be asked. Tannehill's draft classmate, Russell Wilson, dealt with some of this stuff last year. It'll be interesting to see if Miami's purported franchise QB -- who does seem to have his offensive teammates behind him -- can handle it as well as Seattle's did.

3) Seahawks trying to get Jimmy Graham untracked: If you project Graham's numbers over 16 games, they look like this: 72 receptions, 696 yards, eight touchdowns. Awful? No. But those would be low-water marks for Graham in all three categories -- his worst since his rookie year -- and certainly aren't figures befitting a $40 million tight end. Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said this week that the 'Hawks are working on getting Graham going, but "we're not just going to sit here and throw him 5,000 balls. He's in our thoughts." The larger issue might be his fit. "Their offensive mindset isn't to build a plan around a pass catcher," one NFC pro scouting director said. "That offense is built around Marshawn Lynch] and [[Russell Wilson's] ability to extend play and hit big shots down the field. His contribution was supposed to be big in the red zone. They're 29th in red-zone efficiency." The scouting director did say Graham's blocking has improved marginally in Seattle, but then emphasized how Sean Payton's offenses over the years have been built around tight end mismatches, with players like Jeremy Shockey, Jason Witten and Graham (and he noted the drop-off in New Orleans this year with no such player). Another NFC pro scouting director added, "Based on how they play, having him is a luxury. ... They're centered around the run game to set the table for everything else. They can get by with an average receiver group collectively due to the threat of run-action with the back and quarterback. So Graham most likely won't see more than five or six balls come his way in a typical game -- unless they change their identity." It's a conundrum for Bevell, to be sure, and not totally unlike the struggle to get Percy Harvin more involved last year.

4) Panthers pick up where they left off: Carolina GM Dave Gettleman inherited a veteran team in 2013 with cap problems on the horizon -- and rode that group to a 12-4 season that included an NFC South title. The financial issues came to roost early in 2014, and Carolina stumbled to a 3-8-1 start. "We lost a lot of experience and presence in the locker room," Gettleman told me last December. "It took a while to get back what we had." But they got it back indeed. The Panthers have won eight straight regular-season games since, nine of 10 if you count the playoffs, and all the upheaval had a pay off in the young talent that Gettleman and Ron Rivera have acquired and harvested. Only five starters from the team's 2013 playoff game against the Niners started last Sunday against the Bucs: Newton, tight end Greg Olsen, center Ryan Kalil, defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and linebacker Thomas Davis. (Linebacker Luke Kuechly and defensive end Charles Johnson were sidelined by injury.) That's a pretty staggering amount of turnover for a team that's won two division titles in a row. There are some scrap-heap vets filling in the blanks (Roman Harper, Jared Allen), but it's mostly young guys like Josh Norman, Andrew Norwell, Trai Turner, Corey Brown, Kawann Short, A.J. Klein and Shaq Thompson (all 27 or younger). It's not easy to rebuild a roster on the fly, and being in last year's lackluster AFC South certainly helped. But that doesn't mean Gettleman and Rivera don't deserve credit for pulling it off.

Three checkdowns

1)Cam Newton's spat with Ed Hochuli grabbed the attention of the players and coaches in at least one other NFL facility over the last week. The reason why? Because they experienced the same thing, with their own young franchise quarterback being told by Hochuli, according to those there, that he was too young to get borderline calls. It seems fair to assume that Hochuli has a rapport with some players that allows leeway for ball-busting. It seems equally fair to wonder if his message is lost in translation with players who don't share that kind of relationship with him.

2) To some, Todd Gurley's breakthrough in Arizona was a revelation. To the Rams, it wasn't. They were confident Gurley would become who he was early last year at Georgia fairly quickly coming off the ACL injury -- for a few reasons. First, the tear was a "clean" one, as St. Louis saw it. Second, they methodically put the knee through regular -- and varied -- tests in the months after drafting him. He not only passed every test, but he was ahead on every one of them. Add that to a passion for football that was apparent in their evaluation -- which helps any guy coming back from a bad injury -- and the fact that he was a block or two away from breaking a big one in his debut against Pittsburgh. Needless to say, Gurley's 146-yard outing in Game 2 wasn't exactly a shocker to St. Louis.

3) So, could Gurley become the face of the NFL in Los Angeles in 2016? Nothing that happened on Wednesday at the league meeting in New York should dissuade anyone from thinking that way. While Rams owner Stan Kroenke still has to win politically -- satisfying cross-ownership rules was an important step -- his project in Inglewood is still ahead, and he's still the owner with the deepest pockets among the potential movers. I wrote a couple weeks ago that there's a strong feeling in league circles that Chargers owner Dean Spanos deserves a stadium solution, one way or the other, at the end of this. And all of that points to the most likely endgame: the Rams and Chargers in Inglewood.

Two college players to watch Saturday

1) TCU WR Josh Doctson (at Kansas State, 7:30 p.m. ET, FOX): The Frogs have -- to borrow Barry Switzer's phrase -- hung at least "half a hundred" on four opponents in a row. And if electric quarterback Trevone Boykin is reason No. 1, the big, talented Doctson is a strong No. 2. His average over the last three weeks: 10 catches for 189 yards. He's scored seven touchdowns over that stretch. "One of the best receivers in the country," one AFC area scout said. "Big and strong with special ball skills. He's a good athlete -- not elite speed, but fast enough. He's got a chance to be a first- or second-round guy." Doctson is 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds with room to grow, and has a ton of playing experience. He played as a true freshman at Wyoming and transferred, so he's now in his fifth college season after redshirting 2012 in Fort Worth. The trouble is that in the Big 12, he won't see too many stout defenses. And while this might not be a vintage K-State unit, Manhattan is a difficult place for visitors to go, and the Wildcats are always pretty competent on that side of the ball. Plus, Doctson gets another national TV stage to perform on.

2) Alabama DL A'Shawn Robinson (vs. Arkansas, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN): Alabama's game-wrecking front seven was in all its glory in Athens last Saturday. If you factor out an 83-yard touchdown scored with Georgia down 38-3, superstar Bulldog Nick Chubb was held to 63 yards on 19 carries by the Tide. But this week might actually provide a stiffer test for the group. Arkansas' O-line might be the best 'Bama faces during the regular season, and the Hogs have a legit star tailback, too, in Alex Collins. All of which makes for a good environment to watch Robinson, one of the premier run-stopping defensive linemen in the country. "He's a big, wide-bodied, put-together, athletic kid," one AFC college scouting director said. "It's hard to budge him unless he's taking a gap. He plays sound, he's great with his hands vs. the run. ... It's tough for double-teams to move him, and he can get slippery as a pass rusher." The comparison the college director drew? The 6-foot-4, 312-pounder is not dissimilar from former Tide DL Marcell Dareus -- maybe a little more stout, with a little less quickness. And he's a good bet to be the first guy drafted from a 'Bama front that might have a few others -- like DL Jarran Reed and LB Reggie Ragland -- make it into the first round.

Extra point

Mike McCarthy is four games into the second act of his head-coaching life. He's now more CEO, and less mad scientist, and we'll get to where all of that stands. But let's start with his motivation for the move -- he ceded play-calling to long-time assistant Tom Clements last offseason -- which comes from a pretty interesting place.

"It's always been about the offense," McCarthy told me on Thursday. "And 2011 is the year that bothers me more than anything, because we were so good on offense and Aaron (Rodgers) was just unbelievable, and our defense wasn't really built to play that kind of game. We didn't have enough pass rushers. We just weren't built to play that game. We had some games right near the end where we gave up a ton of yards and our confidence just wasn't very good. Obviously, we didn't play well against the Giants (in the playoffs). That year, to me, as great as it was -- 15-1 and we had a lot of opportunity to be 16-0 -- as good as that looks on paper, that's really a team I never wanna be again. It's not balanced."

The sting is still apparent in McCarthy's voice. And it's clearly the memory of that year pushing him to achieve that balance those Packers lacked: "That's the goal, that's the secret, that's why I did it. So far, we're headed in the right direction."

All this started in February and March, when McCarthy and his staff went through job descriptions and responsibilities, and tried to question everything they were doing. They reviewed it all, from practices to the playbook. And as part of that, McCarthy wrote out his own job description, breaking responsibilities into Phase I (broader areas he can affect in-season in 2015) and Phase II (larger-scale projects to take on in the 2016 offseason). There are complexities to it, but the goal he's chasing is simple: to make every facet of the Packers' game complement the next one, and have all the puzzle pieces fit together better than they did during Rodgers' intergalactic season of 2011. As McCarthy puts it, "Add a defensive perspective to the offense and an offensive perspective to the defense."

So far, so good. The Packers were able to outslug the Seahawks in Week 2, and when the Niners tried to drag last Sunday's game into a dark alley, Green Bay was more than willing to put on the gloves and fight.

There are things McCarthy misses. He'd built a library -- a book for each game he coached in -- of background on how every defensive coach he ever faced attacked him, and how he attacked them. His father-in-law, an archivist at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, recently boxed all of it up and took it to Canton. He misses competing against all those guys for sure, and he misses his books. He also has needed to learn, again, how to temper his emotions. He had it down within the flow of calling plays. Now, with quirks to new tasks there to set him off, he has to work hard to maintain the even-keel he wants his players to see on game day.

And then, there are the penalties. Now, McCarthy gets to see all of them.

"You see a lot more, because you're at the line of scrimmage more, and usually you're behind it," he said. "And let's be real, the officiating? They've called a lot of fouls the first four games of the year. So I've found myself a little more frustrated."

McCarthy smiles when asked if he gets an itchy trigger finger to call a play at times: "Yes. Definitely." But he's made a point of staying out of Clements' way as best he can. He's on the offensive headset when the offense is on the field, and the defensive headset when the defense is out there. He'll suggest stuff and has command over the big situations.

Last winter, there was a tedious process to set all of this up, a virtual rewriting of the playbooks. That's paying off now, too. Things are different, for sure. And that's kinda just it -- for a guy in his 10th year in the same place, it's not a bad thing to change.

"You gotta watch that," McCarthy said. "Guys get in a job, and they've basically done the same job for a long time, it's a natural part of this business, you can get complacent. It's a lot easier than it was in the first years. My whole thing is about being creative, and more not only in what we do, but how we teach it. That's something we look at each and every year, I just think there are always better ways."

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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