Bruce Arians: Ryan Griffin's Play is 'Noteworthy'

Take note: Ryan Griffin currently leads the NFL with 531 passing yards during the 2019 preseason. He's also sixth in passer rating (99.2) and tied for sixth in yards per attempt (8.3). Griffin has played in three game halves and ended each of them with a successful two-minute drive ending in points. Most recently, that was a 45-yard march in 28 seconds, setting up rookie kicker Matt Gay for the game-winning field goal against Miami on Friday night.

Now, take a step back: Griffin has been the third quarterback into the game in both weeks. He's played almost exclusively with reserves around him, but he's also been working against mostly reserves. He's got five NFL seasons under his belt, probably more pro experience than entire opposing defenses have on the field at the end of the games. Neither offenses or defenses are going deep into their playbooks on a preseason evening.

So it's fair to apply some caveats to Griffin's sparkling numbers. But it's also fair to say that Head Coach Bruce Arians has indeed taken note of what he's been doing.

"Griff has gotten better and better," said Arians. "And I don’t care who you’re playing with – when you do the things he’s done in two-minute [drives], it’s noteworthy."

Griffin's story is a familiar one to Buccaneer fans by now. An undrafted player out of Tulane, he spent two seasons split between the practice squad and the active roster in New Orleans before he was waived at the end of his second preseason and claimed by Tampa Bay in September of 2015. He's been in Tampa ever since, earning a couple new contracts along the way but almost always sitting third on the depth chart. Most notably, more than six years after first signing with the Saints, and having been on some team's roster that entire time, he has yet to take a regular-season snap.

So once again the preseason is a valuable time for Griffin, as he seeks to convince a new Buccaneers coaching staff to either choose him as the backup to Jameis Winston over more experienced vet Blaine Gabbert or elect to keep all three of them. But the preseason is also when Griffin gets to have a little fun.

"That's why we play," he said. "That's the fun part. Practice is great and all that but that's why you play the game. Go down with a two-minute drive and set your team up for a win."

Two summers ago, Griffin was going head-to-head with Ryan Fitzpatrick and was holding his own but only got nine passes in during the preseason before suffering a shoulder injury that kept him out for half of the year. Last year, however, he was healthy throughout the summer and it showed, as he completed 68.0% of his passes (51 of 75) for 518 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions and a 105.3 passer rating. This year, it's been more of the same, with his completion percentage down a bit (62.5%) but his yards per attempt up by a yard and a half. Over the last three years, Griffin has thrown 148 passes without being intercepted. Preseason or not, that's noteworthy.

Also of note: Tanner Hudson's numbers have been through the roof while playing with Griffin. The second-year tight end leads all NFL players this preseason with 13 catches and 177 yards, and he's scored twice. Two Hudson grabs, the second one of an acrobatic variety, accounted for all 45 yards in that aforementioned drive to beat Miami. Whereas Griffin would much rather be playing on Sundays during the fall than running the scout team midweek, that work has proved useful now that he's getting some game time.

"A lot of that was just all the experience last year with Tanner on the practice squad," said Griffin of his targeting the young tight end in crunch time. "I've worked with him a ton, and knowing there are certain looks…like the first pass, they had two-man and I knew Tanner was going to be right where he was so I was able to rip it. Then the last one, I just knew he was going to get open because he always gets open. Even if it's bad leverage I tell him, 'Look, you always find a way so I expect you to get open.' And he did, and he made a great play."

The conundrum in evaluating Griffin and his potential claim to the second spot is that lack of regular-season experience. Gabbert, on the other hand, has played in 56 games with 48 starts, including five for Arians in Arizona in 2017. The Cardinals won two of those games, beating Jacksonville and Tennessee. Gabbert has only thrown 20 passes so far this preseason but he doesn't have anything to prove to his coach.

"Yeah, I’ve got a ton of confidence in Blaine – he won some games for us, and big games against teams that went to the playoffs that year," said Arians. "It’s only the second time he’s been in the same offense in nine years, so he’s got that recall [and] he’s played at full speed for us."

The bigger question is whether Arians thinks Griffin could step in and do something similar. He seems to be taking an optimistic view on that question, comparing him to Kelly Holcomb, who first entered the NFL (coincidentally with the Buccaneers) in 1995 but who had played in just five games in six years before hooking up with Arians in Cleveland. Holcomb started 10 games during the 2002-03 seasons with Arians as his offensive coordinator.

"That’s the thing – normally, when a guy’s been in the same system, he can really function for you," said Arians. "Kelly Holcomb wasn’t quite that long, but it took him a few years to get his opportunity, then every time he played he threw for 400 [yards] – Griff [is] probably the same type of guy."

Griffin is learning a new system, of course, after four years in Dirk Koetter's offense. Like all the Bucs' quarterbacks, he's also learning the biggest points of emphasis with Arians and his staff, such as emphasizing big plays when there's a chance to go for one. Arians' confidence in both Winston and Gabbert makes it harder to move up the depth chart, but it's also affording Griffin a lot of playing time.

"I've been getting a ton," said Griffin with a big smile. "It's been great. Been chucking it around, too. I'm all about it.

"It's a big difference going to a new offense. Every rep's been great. I'm getting a chance to run our stuff, which is different. There are different ways that we want to approach each play. So every rep's got to count and I want to make the most of each of them."

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The countdown to season kickoff is on! The Bucs are kicking off the NFL’s 100th season with a FREE Tim McGraw pregame concert for all fans with a ticket to the home opener on Sept. 8! Get your tickets today.

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