At his introductory news conference Wednesday, newly signed Ravens quarterback Robert Griffin III spoke mainly of the future: how he would better protect himself under center this season, how he had studied the trend of modern offenses in his year out of football, how he was excited to work with starter Joe Flacco.
But even at a forward-looking media event, Griffin could not resist sprinting back to his superstar past, if only briefly. "When it's time to run for 70 [yards], I'll run for 70," he said, evoking one of the most incredible highlights of his historic 2012 rookie season.
Griffin, 28, has not come close to such a run in the past five years. Nor will he likely approach it at any point over the next five. Even if he indeed feels as healthy as he did coming out of college, as he said Wednesday, oft-injured athletes do not typically return to the athletic peak of their early- to mid-20s as they close in on 30. And so, just as Griffin will need to reckon with the physical gifts he's likely lost or seen diminished, so, too, will the Ravens need to prepare him for an offense that can maximize his strengths (or at least minimize his weaknesses).
In Griffin's debut season with the Washington Redskins, he set NFL rookie records for passer rating (102.4), interception percentage (1.27) and rushing yards by a quarterback (815). Why was he so effective? Washington's refusal to run much of anything but play-action on passing plays, and opposing defenses' utter inability to stop them.
According to Football Outsiders, the Redskins in 2012 used play-action on 42 percent of their passing plays; no other team employed it more than 35 percent of the time. Washington also was one of two teams to average a first down on such action, with 10.1 yards per play-action play and 10.5 yards per play-action pass. (On all other plays without play-action, the Redskins averaged 5.5 yards, among the lower marks in the league.)
Griffin's dual-threat potential, when he was healthy, was traumatizing to defensive coordinators. Operating out of the shotgun, he could hand the ball off to a running back going one way, keep it himself and sprint the opposite direction, or drop back in the pocket until a crossing tight end or wide receiver separated from the linebackers frozen in space.
The devastating knee injury that ended his rookie season, along with a series of other knocks and ailments endured in the years since, has left Griffin searching for an offense that can cater to what he does well. (Or, maybe more accurately, once did well.) Under Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, it's unlikely he will feast on comparable helpings of play-action.
According to Pro Football Focus, Flacco is one of a handful of quarterbacks who have been more successful when throwing on non-play-action passes over the past three years. That efficiency was reflected in the Ravens' relative volume of what used to be Griffin's bread and butter: Flacco had 1,180 attempts on plays without play-action, according to PFF, and just 329 attempts on plays with it — nowhere close to 42 percent.
Even more worrisome for Griffin, the Ravens' aerial attack, always in need of an upgrade, could encourage some of his worst tendencies under center. Toward the end of his Redskins tenure, Griffin finished with the NFL's highest percentage of what Football Outsiders calls "failed completions." (The site's definition of such a play: "On first down, any catch that fails to gain at least 45 percent of the yards to go counts as a failed completion. That threshold climbs to 60 percent of yards to go on second down, and 100 percent of yards to go on third or fourth down.")
In Baltimore, Flacco has led the NFL in total failed completions over the past two years, owing in part to an unstable offensive line, lackluster receiving options and a tendency to check down.
Even if Griffin proves to be a more mobile, less accurate approximation of Flacco, there are far worse things to spend a reported $1 million on in the NFL. After all, the Ravens would not have signed Griffin if he had not impressed them in a workout last month. And if they think they can find a better backup, whether it's a high-floor, low-ceiling No. 2 or a potential long-term successor to Flacco, there's always this month's draft.
If Griffin's focused on his future under center, you can bet the Ravens are considering theirs, too.