There is a hope, and I put an emphasis on hope, among many NFL fans that Dak Prescott will go the way of former Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III. On the surface the comparison has some logic behind it. Both were rookie quarterbacks who led their teams to unexpected division titles and made the Pro Bowl in just their first season. Both did so with the benefit of a very strong running game (Alfred Morris broke the Redskins single-season rushing record in 2012), both were dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks, both did a great job of limiting turnovers as rookies, and both became darlings of the league in a very short period, anointed as the “future” of two historic NFC East franchises.
You can’t blame the casual fan for making the comparison between the two, the only problem is that once you look a little deeper there really is no comparison to be made.
The root of the differences between the two is the manner in which each player succeeded. Griffin’s success was predicated on the ability of Kyle Shannahan, his underappreciated offensive coordinator at the time, blending Griffin’s collegiate offensive scheme, the read-option, with an NFL offense and personnel. The result was something the league hadn’t seen before as the read-option took over the league in 2012. Defenses had no clue how to defeat it and quarterbacks like Griffin, Russell Wilson, and Colin Kaepernick thrived in it, with Kaepernick even coming within a few yards of winning the Super Bowl.
The problem with this is that we see where those quarterbacks and the read-option as a base offense, which is how the 2012 Redskins and Griffin were using it, are today. The league, as it usually does, adjusted and the read-option has become obsolete as anything more than a change-up to be used only a handful of times a game. In 2012 the Redskins and 49ers were using it as a base offense and the simplicity of the scheme, combined with the reliance on the quarterback as a threat to run the ball to keep defenses honest was never going to be something that had long-term success in the NFL. Wilson is obviously still thriving and the read-option is still an ancillary part of the Seahawks offense, but it is by no means their base offense.
It may seem cliché but NFL defenders are too big, too strong, and too athletic to have a quarterback run the ball seven, eight, or more times a game over a 16 game season and then expect them to last for 8-10+ years unless that quarterback is a rare 6’ 6”, 250+ freak of nature like Cam Newton. The NFL isn’t college and if a quarterback wants to succeed long-term they must learn to win from the pocket consistently, and that means refining their footwork, their throwing motion, their ability to read defenses, anticipate receivers coming open, and being patient enough to not bail out of the pocket too soon in order to run.
All of these were severe deficiencies in Griffin’s game that his electric running ability and the short-lived success of the read-option masked, and they’re deficiencies that he was seemingly unable, or maybe even unwilling to improve on. Many blame his collapse on the injuries he suffered in 2012 but in reality those injuries only accelerated what was inevitable. No NFL quarterback will last unless they develop a reasonable level of refinement and ability to make plays from the pocket without relying on their legs, especially one with a frame that is as wiry and sleight as Griffin’s. Had he stayed healthy his legs may have been able to mask the issues for a few more years but eventually they would have come to light.
In 2012 Griffin averaged an astounding eight rushes per game, compare that to Prescott who averaged less than half of that with only 3.8 rushes per game in 2016, yet he still put up six rushing touchdowns in less than half as many carries as Griffin who had seven. Aside from the fact that Prescott relied on his legs far less than Griffin in general, it also seems to imply that Prescott was more judicious with his running, using it only in certain circumstances, such as in the red zone, in order to maximize the benefit and not subject himself to undue risk.
What’s even more notable is that Prescott was asked to run an NFL-style passing attack, especially as he got comfortable as the season went on. Early in the year he was protected with plenty of bootlegs, play-action and yes, some read-option mixed in, but as the season wore on the offense started to look much the same as what Tony Romo ran in Dallas for years with plenty of empty sets and 5-wide formations that stressed Prescott’s ability to read the field and make pre-snap adjustments and decisions.
Who can forget the Packers playoff game where Prescott spent almost the entire game exclusively in the shotgun with a spread formation and four or five players out running routes?
As a rookie Griffin displayed nowhere near the pocket presence, ability to read the field, or accuracy to consistently fit the ball into tight spaces that Prescott did. He also didn’t show the ability to consistently lead his team to victories with his arm, averaging just over 23 passing attempts per game in the Redskins nine wins, while Prescott averaged just over 28 per game in the Cowboys 13 victories. Even further, over 15 games Griffin attempted 393 passes while Prescott attempted 459, a difference of 66. That’s about two plus games worth of passes over the course of a season.
There also seems to be a narrative that Prescott succeeded thanks to a simplified, “dumbed down” offense that didn’t ask him to do much more than hand the ball to Ezekiel Elliott and make a few plays a game, but how accurate is that when in 2014 Romo attempted 435 passes over 15 games compared to Prescott’s 459?
Was Romo running a simplified offense when he had the best season of his career?
Anybody who watched the team last year saw Prescott calling audibles and making adjustments at the line of scrimmage. Towards the end of 2016 the Cowboys offense resembled what we saw in 2014 far more than what we saw even over the first couple games of the year as Prescott was eased in.
With all that said, the biggest difference between Prescott and Griffin, and even yet another one-year wonder like Nick Foles, is that Prescott thrived in a fully-formed, traditional NFL passing offense. This wasn’t Chip Kelly’s first year in the NFL running an up tempo, spread, read-option offense that caught the league off-guard and manufactured stats for a marginal talent like Foles, and this wasn’t Kyle Shannahan merging Griffin’s college offense with NFL concepts to take the league by storm for a short period before defenses adjusted. Prescott’s performance in 2016, and the offense he did it in, is sustainable and repeatable. It was not predicated on wrinkles or gimmicks from the college game that can easily be figured out and neutralized.
The offense has plenty of talent, so some may use that to discredit Prescott’s performance, but is that talent somehow disappearing into thin air sometime soon?
It’s foundation was a strong running game that kept defenses off balance with a quarterback who made crisp, accurate decisions in the pocket while displaying the ability to go through progressions, read defenses, limit mistakes, and adjust accordingly. And when the quarterback had to carry the offense on his shoulders, such as against Green Bay in the playoffs or Baltimore in the regular season, he was able to do just that. It’s a story that’s repeated time and again in the NFL over decades and there is absolutely no reason to believe that it will end any time soon.
And this hasn’t even taken into account the off-field differences between Prescott and Griffin. I don’t want to go too in-depth as far as their personalities, work ethic, etc., but can anybody imagine a scenario where just two or three years from now Prescott has completely alienated himself from the locker room and there are rumors swirling over his ego, that he’s more concerned with his “personal brand”, that his family is meddling in team affairs and so forth?
From a guy who won the respect of veterans like Jason Witten for his leadership and command of the huddle before he even took a regular season snap during the 2016 training camp and preseason?
From a guy who was able to deftly manage the most delicate of situations with the whole 2016 Tony Romo saga?
That’s about as likely as the read-option returning as a base NFL offense.