The Chronological Collapse of Robert Griffin III

(Credit: Kevin Jairaj/USA Today)

The mental and physical pounding absorbed by Robert Griffin III has taken it’s toll in only five seasons.

The cavalcade of calamity in the brief professional career of Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III has been five seasons in the making. The 2011 Heisman Trophy award winner was paired with Mike Shanahan, a former two-time Super Bowl winning head coach with the Denver Broncos — led by Hall of Famer John Elway. In Griffin, Shanahan had a player with similar arm strength and superior improvisational skills. Despite an eye-popping rookie campaign, the tension between coach and quarterback was undeniable. From the controversy surrounding Griffin’s extensive knee injury in the 2012 NFC Wild Card game to the quarterback’s relationship with team owner Daniel Snyder.

Shanahan stooped to a new level of pettiness when he benched Griffin for the last three weeks of the 2013 season after learning he would be fired. The benching of Griffin was an unofficial audition for backup Kirk Cousins, who was drafted three rounds after him. Under current head coach Jay Gruden, the verbal jousting has intensified as did Griffin’s injuries.

Ironically, Griffin’s season and immediate future in the NFL has been put on ice as the team is handcuffed with a $16 million insurance payout if he is injured.

When Kirk Cousins’ 4-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon completed a game-winning drive in Week 4 against the Philadelphia Eagles, I wondered if the cameraman would cut to franchise quarterback Robert Griffin III. Griffin has been the football equivalent of a healthy scratch since recovering from a preseason concussion and until as recently as Week 7 the former NFC Rookie of the Year was not allowed to dress on game day.

Like the Washington football franchise’s post-touchdown celebration, Griffin has been completely cut out of the picture.

Before Griffin won the 2011 Heisman Trophy, America was enamored with the man responsible for bringing the Baylor football program back into the national spotlight. The confident young leader was lauded for everything from being raised in a military family to his eloquence as a speaker. There was even an audience for his signature novelty socks. Griffin didn’t have the “lazy” reputation of JaMarcus Russell or the “baggage” of Cam Newton. Griffin was the “new age” African-American Quarterback — a cut above in the eyes of the public for those reasons among others — a privilege never afforded to African-American quarterbacks.

In his professional debut, Griffin became the first rookie quarterback to pass for 300+ yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in a 40-32 road victory against the New Orleans Saints. Griffin finished his rookie campaign with 20 passing touchdowns with only 5 picks for 3,200 yards, he also rushed for 7 scores.

For all of his efforts in leading the football revival in DC, Griffin’s season would end with him in a crumbled heap with a shredded knee and mired in controversy. A story surrounding the fact of whether or not Griffin was cleared by Dr. James Andrews to resume play after an injury sustained on November 9th against the Baltimore Ravens raised concern about Shanahan’s overall handling of Griffin during the season. It was Shanahan who stated Griffin was looked at and given the go-ahead by Andrews — who denies examining Griffin’s knee.

Ironically, the story broke the day Washington hosted the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Wild Card playoff. Late in the game, Griffin went to handle a botched snap when his already injured right knee completely gave out. Griffin had surgery three days later to repair his right ACL and LCL ligaments.

As Griffin’s knee healed, his relationship with Shanahan continued to deteriorate as the team regressed. Griffin struggled in his second season throwing only 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Griffin finished 3-10 as the team’s starter until he was benched for the final three games of the 2013 season. Shanahan cited Griffin’s health as reason for the demotion despite being informed he would be fired at the end of a tumultuous season.

As a struggling Griffin continued to battle injuries throughout the 2014 season, new head coach Jay Gruden seemed intent on replacing him with backup Colt McCoy. Gruden’s plan backfired as McCoy and Kirk Cousins failed to wrest the job from Griffin due to injury and overall poor play.

Griffin suffered a concussion against the Detroit Lions in Week 2 of this preseason. He was eventually cleared to play prior to the start of the regular season, but it was too late as Gruden jumped at the opportunity to name Kirk Cousins as the starter going forward. Gruden added insult to the situation by placing Griffin at safety with the practice team defensive squad leading up to their season opener.

The handwriting on the wall has bold and unmistakeable.

The position with the shortest life-span in professional sports is that of the Black Quarterback. It’s the only position in sports that cuts across racial lines and is a lightening rod that can divide an NFL city. In most cases you only get one chance to make good. Talent will get you through the college ranks, but at the next level it gets tricky and outright nasty. Washington is no stranger to this brand of controversy the Cousins/Griffin soap opera lacks the outward animosity on display during the Jay Schroeder/Doug Williams beef in the late 80’s, but you get my drift. For all of his brilliance, former coach Joe Gibbs handled that situation poorly, separating his locker room in the process. It was a festering ill only a Super Bowl victory could heal.

The NFL color-barrier was broken in 1946, how many African-American quarterbacks can you name who have held down the job as a starter for at least five consecutive seasons?

The same attributes which gravitated so many to Griffin were a primary deterrent when things took a shift to the left. Griffin, a conditioning dynamo had to fight off criticism from Gruden who repeatedly implied he wasn’t doing enough in rehab or the film room to get back on the field.

Griffin’s “I feel like I’m the best quarterback in the NFL” quote came across as the quarterback being self-centered — an accusation which carries more smoke than fire. Griffin’s proclamation was more about his confidence than anything else. When the biggest doubters you face are in your own locker room there comes a time when you have to remind them who you are and what you’re still capable of doing.

It’s possible that Griffin may not be the most popular guy in the locker room. He isn’t the first quarterback to lose a popularity contest and he won’t be the last, but the NFL is about winning and if anyone in tells you they have a better chance of winning with Kirk Cousins over Robert Griffin III running at 100 percent, they’re a liar. Washington is 4-5 with Cousins — who has passed for 1,954 yards with 10 touchdowns, 9 picks with a completion percentage of 67 percent and an overall QB rating of 83 (prior to yesterday’s victory). To his credit, Cousins is playing decent ball and keeping Washington in the hunt of a putrid NFC East divisional race.

In Griffin’s absence Washington’s rushing attack has been non-existent averaging 91 yards a game with only five touchdowns an area where his presence would assuredly change the dynamic of Washington’s offensive attack.

The alarming rate with which Griffin fell out of favor with Washington’s last two coaching regimes is disturbing Was Jay Gruden willing to fall on his sword against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers down 24-0 in the first half during Week 7 and not put Griffin in the game? Eventually, Washington mounted a historic comeback, but it wasn’t because Gruden believed in Cousins as much as he was out to prove who was really running things to Griffin.

So while a healthy Robert Griffin III moves closer to 100 percent, Washington is covering their financial rear ends by keeping the quarterback off the field, away from sharp objects and anything flammable. Griffin’s 2016 salary is insured for $16.1 million if he is injured, undoubtedly numbering his days in Washington. The relationship with owner Daniel Snyder which appeared to be so airtight has taken a cold turn.

Griffin’s plight is reminiscent of what Vince Young endured under head coach Jeff Fisher when he was quarterback of the Tennessee Titans. Late Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans owner and University of Texas alumnus Bud Adams fell in love with Young, who led the Texas Longhorns to the 2006 National Championship. Adams had close ties with the university and it seemed like a no-brainer to bring Young in since the team was on the heels of an ugly breakup with the franchise quarterback Steve McNair. Jeff Fisher, a USC alumnus wanted Heisman Trophy winner, Matt Leinart who faced Young the 2006 National Championship Game. Fisher’s angst could’ve stemmed from the team’s treatment of McNair, who was unwilling to restructure his deal. Adam’s basically handpicking Young added insult to injury.

In the 2008 season opener, Young lost his job to second stringer Kerry Collins due to a knee injury that kept him out of action 2-3 weeks. Fisher did not hesitate to name Collins as the starter for the remainder of the 2008 season, despite Young going 17-11 as a starter in his first two seasons. Fisher proclaimed Young would have to win the job back from Collins as the 2009 season approached. Young was inserted as the starter after the Titans started out 0-6.

Despite finishing 30-17 in five seasons with the Titans, it was obvious Young wasn’t the player Fisher wanted.

The only difference is Young was jerked around repeatedly by Fisher to spite ownership while Gruden made it crystal clear he wants nothing to do with Griffin. The pressers about Robert needing to do this and that while he’s healing was all coach speak, throw in the $16 million elephant in the room and Washington has the perfect excuse to backdoor themselves out of this relationship.

While a Super Bowl victory for Russell Wilson, the steady and yet dynamic progression of Cam Newton and the emergence of young lions Teddy Bridgewater, Tyrod Taylor and Jameis Winston scream progress, the woes of Griffin and Colin Kaepernick are painful to watch. Griffin’s in a position where him being on the field is a sudden financial liability. In the case of Kaepernick, free agency, retirements, suspensions and the defection of coach Jim Harbaugh have sapped his decision-making on the field and overall confidence nearly three seasons from an eye-popping Super Bowl run.

Hell, Michael Vick is still being tried and convicted for crimes of nearly a decade ago.

Jay Gruden may succeed or fail with Kirk Cousins, but he’ll always be in the NFL coaching pipeline a.k.a. “The Ol’ Boy Network” ditto Cousins — who will receive a strong endorsement from Gruden if they were to part ways. Meanwhile Griffin will have to convince his next employer that other than having a clean bill of health, he’s not a distraction and is willing to buy into whatever is placed in front of him and this is before having to fight for a starting job.

Only in America’s Game.

5 Responses to “The Chronological Collapse of Robert Griffin III”

  1. kos says:

    Straight fire, Ron!

  2. J. Logan says:

    Well-researched, concise, and airtight, RGII. Kudos