Cosell Talks: It’s Not Always Luck

From the Desk of Greg Cosell, Greg Cosell, Inside the Game

When evaluating college players, and projecting them to the NFL, I often feel as if I can never watch enough snaps, enough throws, enough games to reach a conclusion with which I am comfortable. This is particularly true of quarterbacks.

Which brings me to Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. Before I began my film study I had heard that Luck was the most NFL-ready quarterback to come out since Peyton Manning in 1998. The son of a former college and NFL quarterback, an Academic All-American and well-schooled in a pro-style offense at Stanford, Luck was being called a day one NFL starter and a great player. In many ways, it was pre-ordained.

Griffin’s rise appeared more meteoric. Although he started as a true freshman in 2008, it really wasn’t until this past season that folks celebrated the shining star that was RGIII. While Luck was always steady and constant, RGIII was spectacular and breathtaking. Different players in different offenses asked to do different things.

I have watched 5 games of both Luck and Griffin, all from their final collegiate season. Is that enough? Some might say yes, others no. Here’s what I saw. Luck ran a very controlled and condensed offense that featured multiple tight end personnel and a high percentage of compressed formations. He had a lot of freedom at the line of scrimmage to call plays and make adjustments based on defensive fronts and coverages. That’s an essential attribute as he transitions to the NFL, one that has dramatically increased in importance in the last number of years with the complexity and sophistication of defenses. There’s no question Luck is well ahead of the learning curve in that area.

Luck was an economical player who was at his best as a timing and rhythm, short to intermediate passer. 3 and 5 step drops, quick throws. He primarily made efficient throws to open receivers. The deeper throws were what we call shot plays, primarily with play action, specifically designed to attack an anticipated coverage based on field position, down and distance, personnel and formation. On those plays, the receiver was wide open. They were not difficult passes.

Overall, Luck was not asked to make many tough throws at the intermediate and deeper levels. I did not see those. I will not say he can’t make them, but based on the 5 games I evaluated it’s a projection. In addition, Luck had a tendency to lift his back foot off the ground before releasing the ball. That prevented him from driving through his throws and at times negatively impacted his velocity and accuracy. He would lean over his front foot and push the ball. That can be corrected with coaching and repetition, but it’s a concern that must be addressed.

Luck was not a special passer based on film study. He is not the same kind of arm talent as Matthew Stafford or Cam Newton. While charting Luck, I was compelled to reflect on Manning. Was Manning a special passer coming out of Tennessee? Most would probably say no. It raises the question: what is the connection between arm talent and high football IQ as it relates to NFL success? We know where it led with Manning. Also remember Peyton’s arm strength increased as played in the NFL.

Griffin predominantly ran a shotgun spread offense with 1 back and 4 wide receivers. What immediately jumped out was arm strength. He had a very compact and easy delivery with natural velocity. There was a snap to his throws. Many disagree, but in more than 20 years of watching NFL game film, I am a firm believer that arm strength, or put another way, the ability to make tight throws into small windows down the field, is critical. Can you be a top level quarterback without it? Yes, but then you must be special in other areas.

Griffin, for a power thrower, was consistently accurate. The better term for accuracy is ball location. That’s what allows receivers to run after the catch. Griffin excelled in that area, and just as important, he threw with touch on the shorter crossing routes. Short throws for big gains, especially to Kendall Wright, were a feature of the Baylor passing game.

Two other traits really impressed me in evaluating Griffin. The first was his patience and composure in the pocket. He did not move when the bodies started closing it down. He threw effectively out of what we call a “muddied” pocket”. He did not need much functional space to deliver the ball with velocity and distance. Surprisingly, in my 5 game breakdown of Luck, he exhibited a tendency to move too quickly, to leave the pocket too early. The result was often a positive because of his athleticism and ability to throw on the run, but I am very anxious to chart this element of his game in the NFL.

The second characteristic of Griffin’s play that stood out, and projects very well to the NFL, was his ability to throw from different platforms, or more descriptively, arm angles, and remain accurate. It’s especially important given his 6’3” height, an inch or two shorter than would be considered ideal for an NFL quarterback. I’m certainly not suggesting Griffin is the equal of Aaron Rodgers at this point, but that attribute has helped elevate Rodgers to elite status.

A complete breakdown of both Griffin’s and Luck’s play would demand more space than allowable, but here are some final thoughts based solely on film study. Luck, despite his freedom at the line of scrimmage, was managed and manipulated by his offense more than Griffin was in his spread scheme. Griffin threw an excellent deep ball, with trajectory, touch and accuracy. Luck played with an efficiency and continuity that was evident snap after snap. Griffin, despite taking a high percentage of snaps from the shotgun, showed the ability to execute the play action pass game from under center. Luck was very efficient in the play action and boot action pass game. I would describe Luck as a short to intermediate touch and timing passer off straight drop backs, and a deep ball thrower off play action.

The bottom line in my 5 game film evaluation: Griffin is a superior arm talent and natural passer than Luck. Will he be a better NFL quarterback? We’ll find out soon enough.

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