Even though tomorrow night’s final game of the 2014 NFL Pre-Season will essentially be meaningless for the Saints, it will play a huge part in determining a winner in the battle to see who will be the back-up to starting QB and future Hall of Famer Drew Brees for 2014. With 4th string QB Logan Kilgore having been waived yesterday, it means tomorrow night’s Saints-Ravens game at the Superdome will officially pit current back-up Luke McCown vs. 3rd string QB (and almost everyone’s favorite) Ryan Griffin. For one segment of Saints fans, many of whom are skeptical about the Saints’ chances of remaining successful should something (God forbid) ever happen to Brees, they want to see one thing: is back-up and current 3rd string (and deemed the heir apparent to Brees when he retires, by some) QB Ryan Griffin “good enough” to win games and become a starting caliber QB in the NFL?
By all accounts, Griffin has had a great off-season and an outstanding Training Camp; and has looked impressive in doing so. His first two pre-season performances against the Rams and Titans were top-notch — which makes this past Saturday’s night dreadful performance at Indianapolis all that more disturbing. For me, it brought to mind the inconsistency that he showed while at Tulane; when he had moments where he looked like an All-American, and other times when he looked like he wasn’t even the best QB on Tulane’s team.
He makes some spectacular plays when under pressure, such as the 52-yard pass he connected on to Joe Morgan in the 2nd Pre-Season game against the Titans. But he also tends to allow himself up into poor decisions; such as the one against the Colts when he managed to avoid a near sack in the end zone — only to throw an interception on a deep pass to Robert Meachem. Griffin also had another pass nearly intercepted against the Titans, when he made a hurried a throw to running back Derrick Strozier in the red zone that almost took more points off of the scoreboard.
Now as we enter tomorrow night’s pre-season finale, the jury is still out on whether or not Griffin or McCown will be designated as Brees’ back-up for the upcoming season. Head coach Sean Payton, in his final post-practice press conference on the last day of Training Camp, said that competition hasn’t been decided yet. It should be interesting to note however, that even though Griffin has looked better than Mc Cown (at least he has from my perspective), that McCown is STILL listed as the number #2 QB on the Depth Chart, and he’s taken the snaps with the first team in Brees’ absence, while Griffin has taken snaps with the 2nd and 3rd string.
It’s an indication to me that Saints brass, although thrilled with the potential that Griffin has to offer, aren’t completely sold on the 2nd year player from hometown Tulane University. I believe that they feel his inconsistency is a liability at this point; meaning that they may still feel more comfortable with sticking by McCown, whom they likely view as a better ‘game manager’ than Griffin because of his years of NFL experience. If Coach Payton, himself a former QB, decides to carry all three quarterbacks, then it might not be a bad idea — even though it would mean letting go of a promising player at some other position.
Now of course, it’s no great secret that I’ve been one of Griffin’s biggest detractors in the last year; but not because I dislike the young man. On the contrary, I watched him play the entire time he was at Tulane; and what I saw was a QB that was very talented but maddeningly inconsistent. For the record, I’ve never said that I thought Griffin wasn’t quite good enough that he couldn’t PLAY in the League. I merely was implying that I personally didn’t believe he was capable of being a “franchise QB” (as in Brady, Brees, Manning, Rodgers), or even a starting-caliber one.
Actually I’ve been watching and observing Tulane football since 1973; which was when the Green Wave played at the old Tulane Stadium on Willow Street in uptown New Orleans. It just so happened that our family had Season Tickets to both the Saints and Tulane Football, so I grew up as a Tulane fan. As such, I’ve watched every Green Wave QB play since the first one that I can remember, which was Roch Hontas from the great ’78 and ’79 teams coached by Larry Smith.
Griffin finished his career at Tulane having played in 42 games with 39 starts; completing 836-of-1,396 passes for 9,026 yards and 56 touchdowns with 35 interceptions. He set Tulane career records in pass attempts, completions, and completion percentage; while finishing second in passing yards, passing yards per game (214.90), pass attempts per game (33.24), completions per game (19.83) and 300-yard passing games (10). He was looked at by several teams as a potential late-round pick in last year’s draft (including the Saints, who had worked him out), and of course got the call from the Saints about an hour into the UFDA signing period at the conclusion of the 2013 NFL Draft.
My problem with Griffin then was (and still is, actually) that I think that he lacks the mobility to make big plays with his legs or the extraordinary arm strength to make pinpoint throws from corners that a NFL defense would and could paint him into. Griffin, by all accounts (and from my time watching him play when he was at Tulane), is a classic ‘pocket passer’.
Now I’ve actually heard some of the supposed expert analysts (like ESPN’s Ron Jaworski) say that the pocket passer is a dying breed in the NFL. I honestly think that’s a bit of a melodramatic statement on their part; and likely the truer reality is that the NFL is becoming more open minded to schemes that allow mobile quarterbacks to continue using their skills, but within a complementary offensive framework.
Essentially, pocket passing isn’t dying as much as its long-time dominance on the QB position is breaking up — as the talents of a Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, or RG3 of the Redskins would attest to. In a nutshell, it’s Griffin’s lack of ability to “create” plays (mostly with his feet, like Brees still CAN do in a pinch) when he is being harassed (instead of taking a sack), that worries me the most. Though it’s fair to say that Griffin wasn’t playing behind the 1st team offensive line or any of the starting offensive unit for that matter, he still looked very uncomfortable when the Colts brought the heat on him.
While I’m no expert on the QB position, I think it’s at least safe to say that I’ve been able to determine which QB’s will adapt to the professional game successfully, and which ones would not. I knew Peyton Manning would be a great QB someday when he came out of Tennessee in ’98. Conversely, I knew that Ryan Leaf of Washington State would not. Surely it doesn’t mean that I get it right all of the time (please don’t ask me about Tim Couch), but my percentage is fairly good.
Griffin lacks an arm of an ‘elite’ QB, but he actually does have a ‘starting-caliber’ arm right now — with room to improve that arm strength as he adds more weight to that 6’5, 215-pound frame. The biggest question from my viewpoint is does he have the in-game acumen, pocket presence, maneuverability, and accuracy down field to be on the level of other starting caliber QB’s such as Matt Ryan, Nick Foles, or Ryan Tannehill? That to me is still the unknown concerning Griffin; and it’s something we still may not have an answer to after tomorrow night’s game.
What I won’t do at this point is to say that Griffin won’t be able to do it; simply because I failed to take into account in my criticism of him two important factors, which was I underestimated Griffin’s intelligence (he went to academically superior Tulane, after all); and more importantly, I forgot who it is coaching him. Sean Payton is an offensive “guru”, most notably not only for winning a Super Bowl; but for turning Tony Romo of the Cowboys from a “nobody” into a star QB, while he was the offensive coordinator with Dallas in 2005.
It stands to reason: if Payton can turn Romo into a star and a great starting caliber QB in the League, why couldn’t he do the same with Griffin? Being a product of the Tulane offense (the same system used by Tulane head coach Curtis Johnson; who was the former Saints WR coach on Payton’s staff) gives Griffin a distinct advantage in trying to pick up the Saints’ attack; and current Saints quarterback coach Mike Neu was his QB coach at Tulane, as well. Still, I’m not totally convinced that Ryan Griffin can pull it off just yet. However, by learning behind a future Hall-of-Fame QB like Brees; Griffin has a unique opportunity to take another “step up” the proverbial progression ladder, and actually become a legitimate starting-caliber NFL quarterback.
Maybe not “elite” mind you, but still “good enough”. In this League, sometimes just simply being good enough can go a long way, if other factors (a great defense, offensive weaponry / outstanding play at the skill positions) are already in place (both Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson are Super Bowl winning QB’s, after all). Those same factors that I listed are present with this Saints team; so if Griffin were to ever have to step in for Brees, his chances of success certainly would be better than fair.
There certainly can’t be any doubt that Griffin has the more “upside” than McCown. Griffin oozes potential and is only in his second year in the League, turning 25 in November; while McCown, the Louisiana Tech alum who just turned 33 last month, is now with his fifth different NFL team in a journeyman career that has even saw him lose his starting role in Jacksonville to Blaine Gabbert (yikes). Nevertheless, McCown’s experience would seem to be the one factor that has forced Sean Payton from stopping short of making a commitment to Griffin.
The bottom line on all of this is that we’ve seen McCown play with the starting unit for the entire Pre-Season, while Griffin has not. It’s very possible that the results thus far would have been much different, if the roles had been reversed through the first three games. Tomorrow night will possibly settle this matter once and for all; but then again perhaps it may not. Either way, the question may linger on for Saints fans in spite of whatever decision comes down within the next few days out at Airline Drive. That of course is the question that myself and other Saints fans will have to ask at some point: is Ryan Griffin “good enough” to win games in the NFL?