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Star: Cowboys Expected To Face Texas QBs Down The Stretch
This story originally appeared in Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, please click here.
The 1A to Andrew Luck’s No. 1 status entering the NFL Draft last spring, Robert Griffin III went to the annual Scouting Combine prepared to showcase himself for the league’s talent evaluators. He hadn’t yet conceded the idea that Luck would go first overall, so he stepped up to the podium at Lucas Oil Field in Indianapolis for his press conference, hoping to showcase his intellect, poise, trustworthiness and charisma to the football media, and vicariously the 32 NFL teams (Colts included). The image of the stoic Peyton Manning still hung from the red brick of the stadium’s exterior. There was money on the line, and prestige.
Unfazed with the first question, Griffin lifted the leg of his sweatpants to reveal a pair of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles socks.
“It started my sophomore year in high school,” Griffin says. “I wasn’t one that really matched all that well. That’s why the socks usually never match anything I’m wearing. It’s to show I’m comfortable with who I am, I’m comfortable in my own skin. The socks are just a representation of that.”
Griffin’s zany socks have become a part of his legend – he went with the Superman theme the night he accepted the Heisman Trophy in New York last December – but so has the ease with which he carries himself. He knows who he is, what he is, and that it’s something of which he should be proud.
Now the leader of the Washington Redskins (and quickly becoming the face of the league), he will still always be a Texas Quarterback. Raised in Copperas Cove, the Central Texas town of 30,000 nestled near Killeen, Temple and Fort Hood, Griffin stayed at home for college, choosing Baylor over larger schools because it saw him as a QB, not a receiver or a defensive back. For Bears head coach Art Briles, who came over from the University of Houston the year Griffin selected Baylor, there was never a question of where his strengths lay.
“I knew he would be great because he was a competitor, he was a winner and he had a fierce determination to excel,” Briles says. “And he could run. He was a guy that really could run, and could throw extremely well with a lot of accuracy, which is a rare combination. So when I saw that, I knew he could have a chance to be a great quarterback. What I look for in general from a high school quarterback is a competitor, a winner, being a great teammate and then having skills with both their arm and their feet.”
A two-time 4A state champion head coach at Stephenville High School, just southwest of Fort Worth, Briles is one of the pioneers of offensive theory in the state of Texas. Though his prep titles in the early 1990s came while running a wishbone scheme – the prevailing system in the state at the time – he chose to transition his team to a more wide-open spread attack, featuring the shotgun formation heavily, later in the decade. His offense enjoyed fast success, in 1998 breaking a 73-year-old national record for yards, and he sent six quarterbacks to Division I football.
In 1999, he left for the ranks of the Big 12 himself, joining the Texas Tech staff of another spread offense guru, Mike Leach. A winding road led him from there to the top job at U of H, and then to Waco, where he has been the head coach since 2008. Prior to Griffin, he launched the NFL career of Kevin Kolb, now with the Arizona Cardinals, and is regarded as one of the top coaches for quarterbacks in the nation.
Not bad for a guy who began his career in the tiny West Texas hamlet of Sundown.
Briles is clearly as resourceful as they come in his line of work, and other coaches in the state have since been nipping at his heels for more than a decade. The NFL is a copycat league, not only among its own teams, but also those in the college ranks and right down to the high schools. Professional teams are now using schemes that can be traced back to Friday nights in the Lone Star State where smart coaches, oftentimes lacking elite talent, have been making the most out of the tools at their disposal with offenses that are all but impossible for even the most athletic defenses to stop.
The spread scheme stretches the field with three, four and sometimes five receivers and an offensive line that often sets up in wide splits. This allows the quarterback to pick the opposition apart with quick, high-percentage throws – the bubble screen, the slant, an occasional deep ball – a surprise ground game that utilizes both the running back and quarterback, and play-action. But whereas five to seven years ago, these offenses were generally regarded as gimmicks, triggermen like Griffin are now being taken very seriously.
“I’d like to sit down with them and show them how simple it is. It’s not a simple offense,” Griffin says of the system he directed at Baylor. “It’s a good offense. It’s a really great offense and it’s a quarterback-friendly offense. ‘Simple’ would not be the word to describe it. … We were in shotgun a lot. So were Tom Brady and Eli Manning in the Super Bowl, but that’s beside the point. I’m not going to try to make it seem difficult. But … whether it’s protections, progressions and what I’m doing out there, it’s not as simple as everybody makes it seem. We usually had at least three options in our offense, with a check-down. Then the fourth or fifth option would be for me to make something happen. Sometimes it happens that way in games for quarterbacks.
“So it wouldn’t be a huge leap (in the NFL). Not that this is high school football … just saying.”
In the 13 drafts between 1993 and 2005, zero of the NFL’s 30 first-round quarterbacks hailed from the state of Texas. Since then, however, there has been a run on QBs from the state, including three picked in the top eight this past April: Luck, Griffin and Ryan Tannehill. All three are now enjoying successful rookie seasons.
This year, eight of the NFL’s opening-day starting quarterbacks hailed from Texas, and 10 more were backups.
And the Cowboys could face an abundance of Texan quarterbacks here in the final six games of the season. Griffin is on the slate twice, along with New Orleans’ Drew Brees, Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton and possibly even Eagles rookie Nick Foles, from Austin, who has played the last two games with Michael Vick out.
Suddenly, half of the arms to pass for 5,000 yards in a single season were nurtured in Texas, Austin’s Brees and Dallas’ Matthew Stafford hitting that elusive milestone just last year.
For one thing, the pressure on high school football players in Texas has always been high.
“At Katy, it was a great high school program and it helped my transition to TCU,” says Dalton, whose Katy Tigers have won six 5A state championships. “The coaches were similar to Coach (Gary) Patterson, fiery guys and that helped me. Katy has such a winning tradition, the ‘Hall of Champions’ they call it. I think everything they do, they expected to win at Katy, so that carried over with me to TCU.”
Although the Texas high school glory players of yesteryear were often running backs, signal-callers and wide receivers have stepped to the forefront since the advent of the spread offense, which preceded another turning point in the game.
“I’d say the implementation of seven-on-seven,” Briles names as a major impetus for change at the Texas high school level. At the skill positions, football became a year-round sport, with seven-on-seven leagues providing excellent practice for players in the spring and summer. “And also, just the change of philosophy by the Texas high school coaches over the last couple of decades. They’re taking their best athlete a lot of times and putting him at quarterback instead of running back.”
Because of the rules that allow the skill players to practice more often, Briles doesn’t see high schools reverting to the old schemes in Texas, even though those sorts of things work in cycles.
“I don’t think so,” Briles says. “There’re too many guys that are going through the seven-on-seven, and it’s turned into a quarterback and receiver based game, so I think it’ll stay pretty much the way it is. I mean, there’s always going to be parts of the state that will run the ball a little more, but I think it’ll be more from some type of spread.”
Much of the rest of the nation has taken to copying the Texas style of offense, and there may come a day when almost every high school is playing the spread, with their quarterbacks in turn taking huge leaps from year to year in seven-on-seven programs. At some point, coaches from Texas won’t have the schematic advantage they did when innovating their offenses more than a decade ago.
The cream will always rise to the top, though, with the best coaches finding a way to win at every level, recruiting top talent to their colleges or identifying players who can do the job at the pro level.
“Coach Briles is amazing,” Griffin says. “Sometimes you get a feeling about somebody and it’s right. The feeling I had about Coach Briles was right. He’s honest, he’s down to earth, he’ll talk to you, he’s approachable as a coach. His humility is amazing. For all the things he’s done in his life, to continue to be the way he is, he helped me become a better player and a better person as well.”
The best of the best just seem to have their way of achieving excellence, schematic or otherwise. Especially in Texas.