- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
In fact, as running threats with great arms, such as Colin Kaepernick, force defenses to change on the fly, Sunday's game suddenly looks an awful lot like Saturday's. Says Carroll, "We're not trying to adapt [college] quarterbacks to our systems anymore. We're adapting our systems to the strengths of the quarterbacks we draft."
The colleges have noticed. "You have to give credit to the [NFL] coaching staffs," Ohio State's Urban Meyer says. "They're the ones who changed. Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll and Mike Shanahan deserve credit: Carroll with Russell Wilson, and the 49ers with the guy from Nevada. I mean, wow! He's running 60 yards untouched? When was the last time you saw a quarterback run untouched in the NFL for 60 yards? For a while people said, 'You can't do that in the NFL!' Yes, you can."
"It's the evolution of football," Carroll says, "screaming at us."
The evolution will be televised.
Over the 29 years I've covered the NFL, the prevailing attitude from coaches on new schemes and ideas in the college game has been, We don't do that here. Not our style. Teams do experiment with college schemes; some of those fail immediately, some work for a while and then fade, and a few stick. The run-and-shoot used by Houston and Detroit in the late '80s fizzled after five or six seasons. The Wildcat made a big impression in 2008, but it's already an endangered NFL species. But in 1989 new Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, fresh from five years of success with the Miami Hurricanes, began using small, speedy players on his defensive front seven to run between and around massive offensive linemen. The idea was ridiculed—until Dallas won three Super Bowls in four years with Johnson's players. Offenses didn't use college-style empty backfields until the late '90s, afraid of leaving the quarterback unprotected; but that is now an offensive staple thanks to the emergence of quick-thinking and -releasing passers.
As for the passing game, the new era is evident in four ways:
• Colleges are churning out mobile quarterbacks with strong arms, and the NFL is letting them stay mobile.
Four quarterbacks drafted in the last two years—Griffin, Kaepernick, Wilson and the Panthers' Cam Newton—embrace their inner Fran Tarkenton. It used to be that option quarterbacks ran the ball because they couldn't throw. But these new guys can throw. Last year Newton became the first rookie to pass for more than 4,000 yards. Griffin was third in the league this year, with a 102.4 rating. Wilson had 26 touchdown passes, as many as Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger. And Kaepernick? The former big league pitching prospect is "such a dangerous runner," says 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, "because teams see how great he throws, and they have to respect that."
Football wisdom says the pocket guy will get beat up less than the mobile guy, but according to Pro Football Focus, the quarterback who got hit most often behind the line of scrimmage in 2012 was Luck, primarily a pocket passer; he was sacked or knocked down 148 times. Of course, Griffin's knee injury complicates the issue. The NFL's offensive rookie of the year played on a high wire too often. He was running full speed in the open field against the Ravens and got down too late to avoid a hit, hyperextending his knee. Hobbled in the postseason, he suffered a torn ACL in the wild-card loss to the Seahawks. The cardinal rule for mobile quarterbacks: Don't risk a major collision for two extra yards.
• The no-huddle is spreading, because quarterbacks like to control the game at the line of scrimmage.