The throw that won the Heisman
Let’s get one thing straight: Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy last season because he was the best player in the nation. His rare combination of deadly accuracy with his arm, sublime decision making and unique maneuverability put him in a class of his own, ahead of guys like surefire No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck out of Stanford and national champion running back Trent Richardson from Alabama.
But if you were pressed to choose one play, one singular moment in which Robert Griffin III “won” the Heisman, it would have to be the game-winning 34-yard touchdown pass to Terrance Williams in the waning seconds of Baylor’s 45-38 upset win over Oklahoma on Nov. 19.
It was a play that exemplified everything that made Robert Griffin III special in 2011: athleticism, arm strength, accuracy, moxie. It was, in short, Robert Griffin III’s Heisman moment.
Today, on TexasFootball.com, we’re going to break down that play like never before, looking at all angles of the play to break down exactly what happened, and why it’s even more amazing than you originally thought.
First things first, it’s important to understand the play itself. The situation is easy to understand, but there are a variety of variables in play. Oklahoma, down 38-24 with just under 7 minutes to play, has just clawed back to tie the game on a 6-yard touchdown run from backup QB (and bruising rusher) Blake Bell, making the score 38-38 with 55 seconds to play in Waco.
After a touchback, Baylor begins marching from its own 20, seemingly content to play for overtime. After a 4-yard run from RB Terrance Ganaway, Griffin busts a 22-yard gain out to the Baylor 46, where the Bears use their third and final timeout. On the next play, Griffin is forced from the pocket and manages to gain 8 yards, followed by a 12-yard strike to WR Kendall Wright down the middle to get the Bears to the Oklahoma 34 – probably outside kicker Aaron Jones’ field goal range – with 28 seconds and ticking (remember: no timeouts).
So, Baylor’s scrambling up to the line of scrimmage with the clock running. Let’s go to the play.
By the time the Bears get set, there’s 17 seconds remaining. They line up in their five-wide spread formation, with a trips bunch formation to Griffin’s right. From top to bottom, the receivers are Lanear Sampson (top of your screen), freshman Levi Norwood (left slot), Terrence Williams (inside on the bunch formation), Kendall Wright (middle of the bunch formation) and running back Jarred Salubi (bottom of your screen).
There are varying reports as to what the play call was. In the Dave Campbell’s Texas Football Winter Edition (available in the TexasFootball.com store), Griffin tells our editor-in-chief Dave Campbell that the play wasn’t even supposed to happen.
“The plan was just to get maybe close enough to win it with a field goal,” Griffin said exclusively to Dave Campbell’s Texas Football. “I told the lineman to hold their positions, and I was actually going to spike the ball after running off a few seconds by running off to the left.”
He went on to say that four receivers were “all running verticals,” meaning running straight down the field.
That, however, is not what happened in practice. Here’s what actually happened when the ball was snapped.
In the end, only two players run verticals or anything resembling them: Sampson, who runs a hitch-and-go route, attempting to get free from single coverage, and Williams, who runs a true go route. Norwood (inside receiver at the top of your screen) runs about 12 yards and breaks off his route after seeing Griffin flushed from the pocket. Wright (middle receiver in the bunch formation) runs about a 12-yard curl; same goes for Salubi, as they end up camping out near the first-down marker, hoping to make a catch and get out of bounds for a field goal attempt.
As for Oklahoma’s defense…well, let’s get to that.
The snap goes back, and the Sooners are bringing four rushers – the three defensive linemen and linebacker Corey Nelson. The pressure is actually very good, as DE Frank Alexander is able to get around the left end and line up a shot on the quarterback. Griffin, though, has something else in mind.
This may not look like it, but this is a very important moment. Griffin, sensing the pressure, steps up in the pocket and flushes to his left. At this moment, he’s looking for Sampson, the receiver at the top of your screen, hoping that he has beaten his man on the hitch-and-go route. But Oklahoma cornerback Jamell Fleming has outstanding coverage on Sampson, and this is the last Griffin will look to that side of the field.
Knowing he’s not throwing to his left, Griffin pulls up and looks back to the right, where it’s a good news, bad news situation. The bad news: big Oklahoma defensive tackle Casey Walker – wearing the No. 12 jersey in honor of the late Austin Box -- is bearing down on him. The good news? Well…let’s take a look at Oklahoma’s secondary on this side of the field.
Well, in short, there’s nothing good about what’s happening in the secondary for Oklahoma. The Sooners are obviously expecting something short – they drop linebacker Tom Wort (on the hashmarks) into shallow coverage – but something gets screwy in coverage, and I think I know what it is. The player circled is DB Tony Jefferson; from the start, he starts covering Kendall Wright in essentially man coverage. This is understandable – Wright torched the Sooners for 208 yards and a touchdown – but that puts everything else in a bind. As much of a mismatch as it may seem, in this case, Wort should be able to handle Wright in this situation. That would leave Jefferson to cover Williams (now streaking down the field), DB Demontre Hurst (the one who looks like he’s not covering anyone) to cover Salubi, and Sam Proctor (now running with Williams) to help with coverage over the top. Instead, because Jefferson clings to Wright, that leaves Hurst in a bind, having to choose between the streaking Hurst and the dump-off Salubi (and remember: a field goal would win the game). So he’s caught in no-man’s land as the guy who should’ve been the over-the-top help, Proctor, is forced to cover the speedy Williams one-on-one. This is an absolute breakdown in coverage -- the kind that happens all the time, where one small miscue leads to a mountain of problems -- at the most critical moment. Griffin sees this – Williams in single-coverage – and is primed for his Heisman moment.
This is Robert Griffin letting the ball go, about to get absolutely tattooed by DT Casey Walker. But he stands in and fires a pass that will go down in Baylor lore.
Williams, cutting away from Proctor at the last second, breaks to his right. As the pass is thrown, Hurst (the one in no-man’s land) attempts to get back in time to help, but it’s to no avail. The ball is impeccably on the money, and Williams hauls it in for a de facto game winning 34-yard touchdown pass with just 8 seconds remaining. Floyd Casey Stadium loses its collective mind, Baylor recovers a fumble on the ensuing kickoff, and the Bears walk off with an unbelievable 45-38 upset victory.
So, there’s the play. But there’s so much more to get to that makes this play even more amazing, the kind that wins the quarterback a Heisman.
I mentioned that Griffin is under heavy pressure on this play, but let me put that in a little bit of context. Griffin takes the snap, scans the field, senses the pressure coming from his backside, steps up and flushes away from pressure outside the pocket, determines that Lanear Sampson isn’t open, shifts his view to the right, recognizes one-on-one coverage on Williams, sets and fires, taking a huge hit at the end…and all of that happened in exactly 4.76 seconds.
That’s right: the ball is in Griffin’s hands for less than five seconds as he does all of these things. That’s a case of sensational instinct and outstanding feel for the game…but it’s nothing without a good throw. And a good throw starts with…
One of the reasons NFL scouts are excited about Griffin’s pro prospects is his lightning-quick release on the ball. How quick is it? From the moment he plants his feet – and the ball is at his hip at this moment after running with it – to the time that it leaves his hand, just 0.23 seconds have elapsed. That’s slower than the now-legendary quick release of Hall of Fame QB Dan Marino, but not by much. Griffin wastes very little energy in his throwing motion, and it helped to lead him to exceptional accuracy in 2011, including on this throw.
The touchdown pass will go into the annals of Baylor history as a 34-yard touchdown strike from Griffin to Williams. But how far did Griffin really throw the ball?
To figure it out, I plotted where both Griffin and Williams were during their respective actions on the play. Admittedly, this isn’t as pinpoint to the inch as I’d prefer it to be, but after careful study of the film from about 50 different angles, here is what I came up with.
By the time Griffin finally comes set and fires the ball down the field, he has moved forward in the pocket up to the 36 yard line. He’s also moved farther away from Williams than whence he started, just about 1.5 yards inside of the left hashmark. That would put him 45 yards away from the sideline to which Williams is breaking.
Williams was much harder to pinpoint, but from studying a variety of angles and using the yard numbers as means of orienteering, it appears that he’s roughly 5 yards deep in the end zone and roughly nine yards away from the sideline. Again: I don’t claim pinpoint precision, but I do think it’s relatively accurate.
From here, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump back to your old geometry textbook, as we have to find the hypotenuse of the right triangle we just formed.
(Raise your hand if you thought you’d read the word ‘hypotenuse’ on a football website today.)
And there it is: Robert Griffin III threw the ball 54.5 yards – precisely 163.68 feet – through the air, on a rope, with a man in his face. That’s jaw-dropping.
So, Griffin threw the ball 163.68 feet. But how fast did he throw it? Remember: in a game that’s so defined by timing, sometimes the most important element of getting that timing right is just how hard the quarterback can sling the ball.
On this play, from the moment that Griffin released the ball to the time that Williams caught it, just 2.24 seconds elapsed, meaning that Griffin threw the ball at a whopping 73.07 feet per second, which translates to 49.82 miles per hour. It’s certainly not the fastest football ever thrown, but considering the circumstances – and that he threw it off of his back foot – the fact that he threw it faster than some cars on the highway is stunning.
Of course, all of the above elements don’t matter without the pinpoint accuracy that is the real main attraction to NFL scouts. It’s easy to say that “Griffin put it on a dime” and call it a day, but we wanted to take it a step further: we wanted to see if we could estimate exactly how big of a space Griffin had to hit in order to hit Terrence Williams in stride.
A few disclaimers before we go on with this, by far the hardest thing to approximate in this exercise:
-We’re operating under the idea that the coverage is what it was: the safety Sam Proctor attempting to close on a cutting Williams from behind, and a closing Demontre Hurst flying back toward Williams in an attempt to get there before the ball does. In short, this coverage:
Griffin’s job was to put it between and over two defenders; as such, we’ll look at this in three dimensions.
-Through looking at a few different angles, we’ve been able to approximate that the three players – Williams, Proctor and Hurst – cover a space that , without diving (remember: in stride), stretches 15 feet (five yards) wide, 15 feet (five yards) deep and 11 feet tall. The 11 feet height takes into account jumping ability with arms fully outstretched.
We’ll take a look at our model of the space from three different vantage points: the front (Griffin’s point of view), the side (from the sideline) and above (for perspective). Each square represents one square foot of space.
There’s a lot to digest here, so let’s take a look at them one by one.
-From Griffin’s point of view – the view from the front – I think it’s easy to understand. Griffin has very little margin for error, especially throwing behind Williams, as Proctor could make a play on the ball if it’s thrown behind him. It’s also dangerous to throw low, as the closing Hurst –who doesn’t get there in time but is close enough to be a factor on an underthrown ball -- could get a hand on the ball from there. Griffin has to put the ball in the high-right corner of his vantage point to keep the ball away from both defenders.
-If Griffin was going to miss, he had the most room to miss deep, as shown in the second graph. Through leaping, Williams would’ve had a play on the ball in a lot of spots from the side point of view, including slightly underthrown (in front of Hurst) and overthrown (if the ball is high, it eliminates Hurst as an enemy. As long as the ball is thrown away from Proctor, the depth of the pass has a little more wiggle room.
-Check out the view from above, which shows you the true difficulty of the throw. In this instance, imagine that Griffin is throwing from the top left corner of the graph. The ball has to travel over the danger area – the top left of the graph, where A) Hurst could get a hand on or, or B) the underthrown ball could fall incomplete with Williams having to come back to it. It’s obviously dangerous to throw behind Williams – Proctor’s waiting there – and it’s also important not to miss shallow, as Hurst could have a play on the ball. In short, Griffin has to have the right amount of loft in order to hit Williams in stride.
By our estimation, in order to his Terrence Williams in stride, Robert Griffin III had to hit an area approximately six feet tall, seven feet wide and seven feet long. That may not sound all that difficult – in fact, if I were to show you a cube of that size, you’d think it was large – but from 54.5 yards away, under heavy pressure and with the game on the line, it’s a masterful throw that Griffin put absolutely on the money.
When you put all of these factors together – the play, the timing, the release, the distance, the speed, the accuracy – you have the ingredients for one of the most thrilling plays in Baylor history, and a moment that may have handed Robert Griffin III the Heisman Trophy.
Greg Tepper is the associate editor of Dave Campbell's Texas Football and TexasFootball.com.
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