The most important acquisition this off-season may be the guy who is discussed the least: free agent center Weston Richburg. Some fans may have forgotten him altogether, or thought that C Weston Richburg was an investment broker trying to interest them in some stock funds.
It’s only natural to think that the quarterback runs the offense. He has the ball in his hands, after all, and decides what to do with it on every play. But in Kyle Shanahan’s scheme, the center has a crucial role, too— diagnosing the defense, calling protections, and organizing the outside zone runs without the help of double-team blocks.
In 2015, Shanahan’s first year as the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive coordinator, they were 8-8 and ranked 23rd in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA statistic (at -7.3%). Then they signed Pro Bowl center Alex Mack, and the next year went to the Super Bowl with the NFL’s best DVOA (24.6%, far ahead of second place New England’s 20.8%).
Weston Richburg is not as talented as Alex Mack, but he’s almost as big (6’4”, 311 lbs vs. 6’4”, 300) and shares Mack’s surprising mobility for his size. (Richburg ran hurdles in high school track as well as throwing shotput and playing football.) At the time of his signing, Shanahan said:
“When you have a center of the level of Alex or Weston, it changes a lot of things, things that people don’t totally realize sometimes you have to get in certain personnel groupings to help someone have an angle to a MIKE linebacker so you can help your center out with the guard. Sometimes you go into a one-back and now the WILL has to walk outside the box and the angles to the MIKE aren’t as good, but you’ve got a center who can get there on his own and doesn’t need the help. It allows you to do a bunch of different stuff.”
Garoppolo and Richburg are well suited to work together. They
are will both be 27 next year, both 2014 second round picks, and both played in the Senior Bowl that year. They are also both relatively new to Shanahan’s scheme, so they’ll be learning it together.
Garoppolo had to pick up the complicated scheme on the fly last season after his mid-year trade and did an admirable job -- especially when you consider that Matt Ryan struggled to learn it with a full off-season. In 2016, David Choate of the Falcoholic told Fooch that Atlanta’s success that year — en route to the Super Bowl -- was:
“...just about Shanahan having a second year to implement his system and add his preferred players, while Ryan has a second year in a system he admitted was too complex for him at first. Ryan has worked hard all year on not overthinking his throws and picking up what Shanahan wants him to do. The result has been arguably the best season of his career”
Garoppolo isn’t Matty Ice — yet — and Richburg may never match Alex Mack. But the two are starting together in Shanahan’s scheme at their physical prime, years before Ryan and Mack teamed up, and they have the potential to become an even more successful pairing.
UPDATE: corrected their ages, h/t winozeist.