The transformation began when he returned from a knee injury. That’s when Mark Brunell knew something had to change. That’s when he knew he must stop being a scrambling quarterback and start being a pocket passer.
It’s a transition Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III wants to make as well. It was a difficult one to endure last season in part because he did not have an offseason to continue making that switch. But it’s one he must keep working on -- and wants to keep working on -- if he plans to have the career many predicted before his 2012 knee injury.
Brunell, the ex-Redskins quarterback, said the way to make this adjustment isn’t complicated.
“It’s very easy, and this will almost sound too basic, but it’s reps,” Brunell said. “It’s going through OTAs and minicamps and training camp with the mindset of, 'I’m dropping back and absolutely have to find a receiver.’ There are four or five receivers in each pass route and your job is to find the open guy.”
Then again, you’re changing a mindset. So perhaps it’s not so simple.
“It’s not easy at all,” Brunell said of changing the way a quarterback thinks the game. “He’s played a certain way since 9 years old. That’s where good coaching comes in. That’s where study becomes very important. A perfect example is Cam Newton’s development. This year he had more of a pocket presence. He had poise, he was more selective when he chose to run and you could see he really grew. That will be critical for RG III. That’s the type of progress he needs to make.”
In Brunell’s first two years, he ran a combined 147 times and led Jacksonville to the AFC Championship Game in that second season. But in the following August, he suffered partial tears of the MCL, PCL and ACL. He needed arthroscopic surgery and missed the first two games of the season. It’s far different than what Griffin experienced. But the need to rely less on the legs and more on the arm is comparable. So, too, was the style of play.
After the injury, Brunell never again surpassed 49 runs in a season. He might have been more raw as a quarterback than Griffin. In his second season as a starter, he ran 80 times – but also threw 20 interceptions (and 19 touchdowns). After he became less of a running quarterback, Brunell never again threw more interceptions than touchdowns as a full-time starter.
By comparison, Griffin ran eight times per game as a rookie and 6.6 last season (though it increased as the season went on – 5.4 times in the first five games and 7.4 in the next eight). He was hindered by the knee brace, which he won’t wear this season. Brunell, too, wore a brace after his injury.
“I had to sit in the pocket and throw,” after the injury, Brunell said. “I moved a little bit and not nearly as effectively as before. Going into the ‘98 season, I felt better as a pocket passer. It probably took me a year. I never got to the same speed, but it put me in position where I was forced to develop as a passer. In a way it was one of the best things for me.”
Brunell said it took lots of coaching and going over throws he didn’t make in a game. He was forced to explain why he didn’t throw to the third or fourth receiver and instead ran. Then he became more cognizant of this approach in practice. Eventually, it segued into game success.
A key will be using more of his receivers and backs, making sure to hit the checkdown throws rather than taking off and running. It should help that the Redskins have a strong receiving corps, at least among their top three, with Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts. And it will help if tight end Jordan Reed can stay healthy. That would provide Griffin with four legitimate targets.
“You can’t make a living running around all the time,” Brunell said. “You have to develop as a passer. You have to have poise. You have to have a lot of patience to really make it long term. Who are the elite guys now? They are pocket passers. Now you have a new wave of young quarterbacks – Cam and Colin [Kaepernick] and Russell [Wilson] and RG III. They can become both. Russell developed in that area from first year to last year and Cam developed. Colin has a ways to go and RG III has a ways to go.
“He can get there. He’s one of the best young quarterbacks in the league and he got there because he’s a great athlete and he’ll be coached well. He’ll be fine. Other young quarterbacks couldn’t get to that point. He won’t be one of those guys. He’s smart.”