Balancing risk vs. reward with RG3

Balancing risk vs. reward with RG3
June 19, 2013, 2:15 pm
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Mike and Kyle Shanahan have said on multiple occasions that running the read option does not expose quarterback Robert Griffin III to injury any more than a conventional, pocket passing attack.

“I think some of the zone read stuff is the least he got hit. It’s the scrambles and stuff like that where, when guys aren’t blocked and stuff, there’s seven guys in coverage who are coming at him from all directions going airborne to hit somebody,” said Kyle last week. “Those are the times when I really get worried.”

Similar comments from the Redskins’ offensive gurus have been met with reactions ranging from skepticism to outright derision and disbelief. The conventional wisdom in the NFL is that a quarterback who runs the ball is more susceptible to injury than is a pocket passer. Former Colts GM Bill Polian summed up the league’s pack mentality when he was asked if he would have picked Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III (he was fired before he could make that choice).

"I'd probably pick Luck,” Polian told SI’s Peter King. “When you boil it all down, you worry about running quarterbacks getting hurt."

At the Super Bowl, NFL savant Joe Flacco said, “quarterbacks like [49ers QB Colin Kaepernick] are eventually going to have to become mostly pocket passers to survive in this league.”

The thing is, the conventional wisdom is not backed up by, you know, facts.

Last summer, I took a look at some injuries that caused starting quarterbacks to miss games in 2011. There were seven of them and only one, Colt McCoy, was injured while running the ball in the open field. Matt Schaub was injured while doing a QB sneak and Jay Cutler broke his thumb trying to make a tackle after an interception. The other four were injured in the pocket.

That was a small-scale study. Around the time of the Super Bowl, two writers at Slate.com did a larger study. This was discussed at the time it came out but it’s worth another look here in light of the recent discussions about the safety of the read option.

Omar Bashir and Chris Oates took a comprehensive look at starting quarterbacks who missed games from 2002 through 2012. That gave them 324 instances of missed games by 82 different quarterbacks.

They used some statistical tests to identify the “mobile” quarterbacks in that group such as those who averaged four or more rushing attempts per start. Those tests put QB’s such as Griffin, Michael Vick, and Cam Newton in the mobile group.

Their conclusion:

“Regardless of how we sliced the data, there was no statistically significant difference in injury rates between mobile and conventional quarterbacks. Quarterbacks of both types tend to lose 11 to 14 percent of their starts to injury . . . three of the four tests produced a lower injury rate for mobile quarterbacks. The gap, though, is small enough that a statistician would call it zero.”

The authors of the study also looked at the types of injuries suffered by the quarterbacks, dividing them into head/neck, upper limbs, torso/back, and lower limbs. A concussion would fall into the first category; RG3’s knee would fall into the latter. There was virtually no difference between the types of injuries suffered by mobile and conventional quarterbacks. About 40 percent of injuries suffered by mobile quarterbacks are to the legs/ankles/feet and about 40 percent of injured conventional QB’s miss games due to injuries to the same area. With both groups, a little over 10 percent of the injuries are to the head/neck, not quite 30 percent to the upper limbs, and 20 percent to the torso and back.

Bashir and Oates did some crosschecking to try to ensure that their data wasn’t leading them to a false conclusion. They checked out the idea that mobile quarterbacks get sacked less than conventional ones and therefore they might get injured less that way. But the data showed that mobile QB’s actually get sacked slightly more often than the others.

In summation they wrote, “based on the evidence available, conventional fears about quarterback rushing and injury risk may be overblown.”

The numbers are what they are but what do they mean in evaluating the Redskins, Griffin, and what type of offense the team should run? Those mobile quarterbacks who were injured prior to 2012, players like Daunte Culpepper, Vick, and David Garrard, had their rushing attempts come almost exclusively when scrambling on pass plays. How much does the read option, for which we have a relatively small sample size, affect the equation?

But, as Mike and Kyle have noted, Griffin did not get injured running off of the option. He sustained a concussion and a knee injury—a less serious one that led to one that was catastrophic—on plays that were called passes in the huddle. The theory that he knows where trouble is coming from on running plays and can protect himself while scrambling plays are more unpredictable is just that, a theory. It worked out that way in 2012 but there is not guarantee that it will continue to work that way especially since defenses all over the league have been working all offseason to devise ways to stop the read option. It is likely that these countermeasures will involve being rougher on the quarterback.

This doesn’t mean that the Redskins should abandon the read option and turn Griffin into a pocket passer. But they can’t just assume that since Griffin didn’t get hurt on the read option in 2012 he will not get injured running it at some point in the future. Of course, he could get injured in the pocket, too.

The coaches’ task is to maximize the offense’s potential while minimizing the risk of injury to the quarterback. The solution to that puzzle is constantly changing and they may not know it until a few games into the season and even then they will have to adjust from game to game, quarter to quarter to quarter, series to series. The organization and its fans hope that they are able to stay a step ahead and have a productive offense and an injury-free season for the star quarterback.