Cam vs. RG3: Compare, or contrast?

rgreenjr@charlotteobserver.comNovember 4, 2012 


EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 21: Quarterback Robert Griffin III #10 of the Washington Redskins runs the ball against the New York Giants during their game at MetLife Stadium on October 21, 2012 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Alex Trautwig/Getty Images)


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    CATEGORIESAuburn 2010*Baylor 2011*Panthers 2011Redskins 2012**Panthers 2012***
    Completion percentage66.172.460.066.857.1
    Passing yards2,8544,2034,0511,7781,701
    Touchdown passes30372185
    Rushing yards1,473699706476310
    Rushing attempts2641791267051
    Rushing touchdowns20101463
    *Heisman winner **Thru 8 games ***Thru 7 games

— Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton have met once, a brief encounter during Super Bowl week last February, just enough to make small talk.

They have won the past two Heisman Trophy awards as the nation’s top college football player. Newton acknowledged this week that he voted for Griffin, whose season at Baylor last fall was reminiscent of Newton’s breakout season at Auburn one year earlier.

Both Griffin and Newton were transcendent talents in college, expanding the traditional quarterback’s role into a hybrid, blending speed and strength into their running while possessing a field presence that forced defenses to make special accommodations to deal with their multiple talents.

Like Newton a year ago in his rookie season with the Panthers, Griffin has arrived in the NFL like a thunderclap, his impact rumbling beyond the game he’s playing, reverberating across the league. Both became sudden stars.

When the Panthers meet the Redskins at 1 p.m. Sunday at FedEx Field, the comparisons will be inevitable.

Unlike Indianapolis rookie Andrew Luck, who more comfortably fits the role of a classic drop back quarterback, Newton and Griffin are more in the mold of quarterbacks such as Steve Young and Steve McNair, former NFL stars whose running ability added a different dimension.

Could Newton and Griffin represent the future of the league?

“They have the opportunity to be, it’s a matter of where they go from here,” Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana says. “A lot of guys come into the league with a lot of charisma and name power behind them, but they never make it. You’ve just got to do the right things and keep going.”

Different players

For all of their similarities, Newton and Griffin may have as many differences.

“He’s an excellent quarterback,” Newton says. “Of course his skill set is similar in ways of having the ability to run the football. That’s about it. There are things he does in his game I don’t do and there are some things that I do that he doesn’t do.”

While acknowledging the similarity in offensive schemes, Griffin compares himself to other quarterbacks.

“I’d rather be compared to an Aaron Rodgers or a guy like that, someone who’s won Super Bowls,” Griffin says. “You want to go out there and win. That’s our biggest goal. That’s what this game is all about. It’s not about me versus Cam Newton. It’s about us getting the win, getting to 4-5 before we go to our bye week.”

Newton is big, 6-foot-5 and 245 solid pounds. He runs with power, fast but not speedy, and his size is a weapon.

Griffin is smaller, listed at 6-2 and 217 pounds. He has a sprinter’s speed and uses it to hit creases in the line almost instantly, more burner than bruiser.

Newton has been criticized for his sideline demeanor and his tendency to hide beneath a towel on his head. His glow, which earned him the cover of GQ magazine this fall, has become a glower as the Panthers’ 1-6 season has unspooled. He doesn’t mask frustration well and his body language can turn into performance art during some media sessions.

Griffin, to this point, has been engaging and entertaining. From the moment the Redskins packaged three first-round draft choices and a second-rounder to take Griffin with the second pick in the 2012 draft, it became clear Griffin was the new face of a franchise desperate to regain its faded glory. To this point, he’s been a smash both for who he is and how he’s played, similar to Newton a year ago.

“If you’ve told me at the midway point of the season that Robert would be the most successful quarterback in the NFL for yards per play for second and third down, I’d literally say you were crazy,” Redskins coach Mike Shanahan says.

“So for a guy to be able to do that and still have limited turnovers, it has been pretty impressive. Robert would be the first one to tell you, ‘It’s a bunch of guys working together,’ it is not just him. Robert would also say, ‘Those stats don’t mean anything until you start winning football games.’ So, a lot goes into it but I’m very proud of what he has done and I pray he will still get better.”

Fast start

Newton debuted last season with the first 400-yard passing game by a rookie quarterback in his NFL opener. A week later, Newton threw for 432 yards against Green Bay.

Ultimately, Newton was named Associated Press offensive rookie of the year, set the rookie record for passing yards (4,051) in a season and an NFL record for rushing touchdowns in a season by a quarterback (14).

Opposing teams scrambled to defend against Newton, who used the zone-read package to his advantage. The option allowed Newton to make quick decisions on whether he or a running back would keep the ball, an uncommon wrinkle in the NFL, which hasn’t traditionally embraced option elements in offensive schemes.

Redskins coach Mike Shanahan says Newton’s effectiveness last year did not directly influence his decision to draft Griffin, though he saw Newton in person when the Panthers beat the Redskins last October.

“I think you judge everybody and make decisions on which direction to go and you always like to see someone have success,” Shanahan said. “I really didn’t study Cam too much. I just knew at the end of the year he had one heck of a year. I know when he played us, he played fantastic. You could see the type potential he has.”

RG3: Greater impact?

Flash forward to this year and Griffin has made a similar impact. He’s already rushed for 476 yards, the most by a Redskins quarterback, and he became the first rookie quarterback in the Super Bowl era to rush for 100 yards and two touchdowns in a game when he did it against Minnesota.

Griffin has completed 66.8 percent of his passes for 1,778 yards and has thrown just three interceptions. He ranks first in the league in quarterback rating against the blitz (133.1) and is the eighth-ranked rusher in the league.

Asked if watching Griffin reminds him of watching Newton as a rookie, Panthers coach Ron Rivera says, “Yes, it does.”

Former Redskins general manager Charley Casserly, now with the NFL Network, believes Griffin has shown more than Newton already.

“RG3’s a better quarterback,” Casserly says. “He’s a better pocket passer. He’s a more complete player, more accurate, better decision-maker. But RG3’s a more complete player than a lot of quarterbacks in the league.

“This guy can run and he can throw. RG3 can run a traditional offense and beat you. This guy’s one of the most unique players to come into the league. He’s the most exciting player in the league right now.”

There are differences in what Newton and Griffin are asked to do, Rivera says. The Redskins use a pistol formation with a back lined up behind Griffin in the shotgun. At times, they also offset a running back beside Griffin. The Panthers don’t use the pistol formation with Newton, occasionally putting a back beside him in the backfield.

Shanahan has called the Redskins’ new scheme the ‘East Coast offense,’ a variation of the West Coast offense that reshaped the league several years ago. It’s heavy on the option and, at least early, was built around Griffin throwing shorter passes, often to backs behind the line of scrimmage. That has expanded with game plans dictated by opposing defenses.

“It’s all part of the progression,” Rivera says. “You look at some of the things we did last year with Cam and each one was a step and a step and a step. I think that’s what they’ve done right now. I’m not sure if it’s necessarily they’re adding things as they’re planning for who they play next. When you break the tape down, you’ll see there’s a wrinkle or a twist or tweak to what they do to really attack who they are playing."

Regardless, RG3 is at the center of it.

“I thought Robert would have a chance to do something special,” former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy says. “Mike’s offense is based on a mobile quarterback. You try to incorporate some option and some designed runs. It surprised me that he was completing 70 percent of his passes and there were not many interceptions. To get halfway through the season with those numbers is very impressive.”

Newton struggling

Through seven games this season, Newton’s production has dipped. He has thrown eight interceptions and five touchdown passes. He leads the team with 310 rushing yards but what seemed to come easily for Newton and the Carolina offense last season has become more difficult.

Some say Newton has been pressing too hard. Others say defenses have adjusted to what the Panthers want to do.

“People do their homework,” Dungy says. “It’s a little bit of the league adjusting to it. I think Robert Griffin will face some of that next year.”

Are Newton and Griffin on the leading edge of a shift in offensive style in the league or are they outliers, special players because of special skills?

“It’s always going to be a drop back league but we’ve had Steve Young bring a different style. Michael Vick made a splash. But you could always find more classic quarterbacks coming out of college,” Dungy says.

“But now you’re seeing this kind of quarterback in college. It will depend on if more of them come out with this kind of arm strength and the mobility.”

Green: 704-358-5118; Twitter: @rongreenjr

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