Cam Newton redefined what can be expected of rookie starting quarterbacks in the NFL last year.
Now, the league will have five opening-day rookie starters at the position, eclipsing the previous high by three. Some have said that Newton set the bar too high, and this year's crop will seem like a disappointment in comparison, even though their performances would have been considered encouraging in years past.
Of the five first-year starters on Sunday, the one that has the most potential to continue the trend Newton started by giving defenses questions they can't answer is Washington's Robert Griffin III.
Head coach Mike Shanahan made Jake Plummer and Brian Griese into efficient, dangerous quarterbacks. He is just the man to maximize Griffin's talents by putting him in situations where he will succeed. What elements will Shanahan incorporate into the game plan to give Griffin the best chance of coming through in the Superdome?
Shanahan's offenses always run the ball effectively, which sets up the pass and loosens the coverage downfield by drawing more men into the box. Griffin was a spread option quarterback at Baylor, but he executes his play fakes like a seasoned pro, causing the defense to flow away from him.
The clear passing lane allows Griffin the ability to lead his receiver on the deep ball and deliver the pass with no impediments.
The ball falls incomplete because Pierre Garcon slowed just a bit while he was looking over the wrong shoulder, but otherwise, it was on target for a touchdown.
The Redskins opened their Week 3 preseason contest against the Colts with this play. It leverages off of the threat of Shanahan's zone blocking running game, the hyper-accuracy that Griffin has on his deep ball and Garcon's speed.
If the Saints coaches are paying attention, they will put it in the minds of their defense that the first (and many subsequent) running plays could be a fake to set up a deep shot downfield.
As the NFL becomes a passing league, the shotgun formation becomes more prevalent. The formation allows a young quarterback like Griffin to make pre-snap reads with more ease than the traditional setup under center.
It also brings Griffin's considerable athletic gifts into play. On this play, the linebacker blitz is not tipped before the snap, so Griffin does not identify him as a pass-rusher:
The blitzer comes untouched at Griffin.
The shotgun formation gave Griffin the extra split-second to elude the would-be tackler.
Griffin was able to run for the first down on this 3rd-and-long, but the Redskins also seemed inclined to put him in the shotgun on 3rd-and-1, which is usually reserved for heavy, tightly-packed short yardage sets.
The Redskins also incorporated a lot of pistol formation in the preseason contest vs. the Colts.
The pistol formation gives the quarterback some of the same advantages as the shotgun, but the timing of the running plays can remain intact as the back still receives the handoff running at speed instead of a standstill, as he would in a shotgun formation.
Griffin can take snaps and drop back from under center very well for a quarterback that didn't do it regularly in college, but expect to see him hand off, or fake the handoff more often than not when he is under center on Sunday, because the Redskins will show a ton of pistol and shotgun looks when they intend to pass.
Quarterback rollouts are a staple of the Shanahan offense. They give the quarterback clear field vision and the option to run. Shanahan will have receivers running with the quarterback across the field and the passer will often have multiple reads to choose from.
The rollout is combined with the shotgun with success in the red zone on this play.
Griffin chooses the pass option as veteran receiver Santana Moss is running with him along the goal line.
It results in a touchdown.
Griffin could be lethal on these plays because the threat he presents as a runner will keep linebackers at home and allow a lot of room to roam for the receivers that are crossing the field in sync with the quarterback. Don't be surprised if Griffin's biggest running play of the day comes on a rollout passing play.
The Tight End
Shanahan has not had a receiving tight end as talented as Fred Davis since the days of Shannon Sharpe. The big pass-catcher will surely be a big part of the game plan, and the Redskins can use him to maximize some of the edges created by Griffin's arm strength and accuracy downfield.
On this third and medium, Davis is part of the offensive line as in-line tight end.
The wide receiver runs downfield, clearing out a space for Davis to occupy.
Davis sets up camp by the first-down marker, and Griffin finds him as his primary read for an easy first down.
All of the other elements—deep play-action passing out of run formations, shotgun and pistol formations for quick reads and increased escapability in the pocket and rollouts—increase the ability of Davis to make a big difference on Sunday. Safeties will either be pinching up against the run or cheating deep to not allow Pierre Garcon to get behind them.
The shotgun formation makes it easier for Griffin to locate the big target right away. Rollouts draw a linebacker forward, creating an intermediate zone for Davis to run free.
Look for the Redskins game plan to converge at the fifth-year player out of USC and evoke memories of Elway to Sharpe on Sunday.