Griffin had the highest passer rating in league history for a rookie. Luck set a rookie record for passing yards and Wilson tied the NFL mark for touchdown passes by a rookie. Each led his team to the playoffs. Greatness was predicted for all and comparisons were made to the legendary quarterback class of 1983 that included Pro Football Hall of Famers John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly.
But now, as the trio completes its second season and the NFL playoffs begin this weekend, Griffin has been left behind, at least temporarily. While Luck’s Indianapolis Colts prepare to host a first-round AFC playoff game Saturday against the Kansas City Chiefs and Wilson’s Seattle Seahawks enjoy a first-round bye before they play at home next weekend, Griffin’s Washington Redskins are searching for a new head coach after a turbulent 3-13 season.
Griffin failed to recapture his rookie-year magic this season as he returned from offseason knee surgery. He spent part of this week standing on the sideline as his alma mater, Baylor, lost the Fiesta Bowl. With Luck and Wilson still at work and vying for a Super Bowl title, the comparisons are inescapable.
“A lot of people are always going to measure Russell and Robert and Andrew against each other because they came into the league together,” former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said. “The media in general is gonna do it. It’s like how they talk about the class of ’83. You’re always gonna be measured against the people you came in with. But I don’t think Robert does it. He understands the extenuating circumstances.”
Those circumstances are that Griffin missed offseason practices, the bulk of training camp and the entire preseason after surgery on his right knee days after last season’s playoff loss to the Seahawks. His relationship with Mike Shanahan, who was fired Monday as the team’s coach, came under intense scrutiny, and the Redskins lost their final eight games. Shanahan shut down Griffin with three games left to avoid the possibility, the coach said, of Griffin being hurt again.
“I think it’s all of those things — Robert not having an offseason to be able to grow, the performance of the football team overall,” Theismann said. “If you really look at the situation, the crux of it was the loss of $36 million [due to the NFL’s two-year salary cap penalty imposed on the Redskins]. This league is about players. If you take three to four key players away from any team, they’re gonna be 7-9 or 5-11 or 3-13.”
Griffin, with his mending knee, never resembled the same dynamic player he’d been as a rookie, according to former NFL quarterback Tim Hasselbeck.
“When you watched him this year, he was still a better athlete than most,” said Hasselbeck, an NFL analyst for ESPN. “But the things that made him special last year, they weren’t there this season. This idea of who he was as a passer in this league was just off. What made him special as a rookie was things like turning [New York Giants defensive end] Jason Pierre-Paul around in circles on that scramble, the long touchdown run against Minnesota. That’s what made him special, and he wasn’t able to do that this season.”
Luck and Wilson have taken the next step toward being polished quarterbacks. Wilson upped his passer rating from 100.0 as a rookie to 101.2 this season. He threw for 3,357 yards and 26 touchdowns, with only nine interceptions. He did have plenty of help as the Seahawks went 13-3 to secure the top seed in the NFC playoffs.
“I don’t think Andrew necessarily has a better team around him” than Griffin does, Hasselbeck said. “I think Russell does.”
Former Green Bay Packers wide receiver Antonio Freeman said that Wilson and Luck indeed “have surpassed” Griffin. Freeman said he believes Wilson is aided by his team’s strong defense and powerful running game. He was impressed, he said, by Luck’s ability to adapt after losing veteran wide receiver Reggie Wayne to a season-ending knee injury. But both, according to Freeman, have benefited from a level of cohesiveness with their coaching staffs that Griffin did not seem to have this season.
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, a 2012 third-round pick, has also emerged this season under first-year coach Chip Kelly, leading the league with a 119.2 passer rating and guiding his team to the NFC East title.
“When you don’t have the full support of your coach or your coaching staff, it’s hard for a young quarterback coming off a substantial injury,” Freeman said. “It always seemed to be a sense of, ‘He can’t do this. He can’t do that.’ You’re still a fragile young man. Any time you lose that confidence and that trust like that, you’re gonna see a guy regress like you saw with RGIII this year.”
Luck threw for 3,822 yards and 23 touchdowns with nine interceptions as the Colts went 11-5. Luck threw for 552 fewer yards than he’d managed as a rookie but cut his interceptions in half from the 18 he had last season.
“Russell Wilson has a whole different set of players around him,” Theismann said. “Andrew Luck is a different type of quarterback. That’s apples to oranges. If you want to compare oranges to oranges, you have to look at [San Francisco’s Colin] Kaepernick. That’s the level of rushing yards you need to see Robert at. . . . Now it becomes about a skill set for Robert to operate more effectively from the pocket.”
Griffin ran for 489 yards in 13 games this season (compared to 524 yards for Kaepernick, the third-year pro who played all 16 games for the 49ers) after amassing 815 rushing yards in 15 regular season games as a rookie. His passing efficiency suffered this season. Griffin went from 20 touchdown passes, five interceptions and a 102.4 passer rating last season to 16 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and an 82.2 rating this season.
“Robert rushing for 800 yards — it’s over,” Theismann said. “It has to be or he’ll get hurt again playing like that. . . . Mike did the franchise a favor [by sitting down Griffin]. He protected Robert to be able to be ready for the 2014 season by not exposing him to at least 30 more hits. Will Robert Griffin ever be the quarterback he was a year ago? Hopefully not. You don’t want him to be. You want him to be a 4,000-yard passer who throws the ball efficiently from the pocket.”
But even as the Redskins retool and Griffin watches while Luck and Wilson play on, there remains hope for Griffin, according to Hasselbeck, that he eventually can make up the ground he’s lost to his 2012 draft-class quarterbacking contemporaries. Hasselbeck said that Griffin would be wise to note the drama-free approaches to the sport taken by Luck and Wilson.
“We’re all very quick to give week-to-week evaluations,” Hasselbeck said. “If you watched him at Baylor, he was fantastic. He showed a bunch of ability his rookie season. There’s a ton of stuff to build on. A lot of that noise around him this season was off-the-field stuff. I think that probably needs to be addressed. . . . A new head coach will come in there and the conversation should be, ‘You can be a star in this league. I’m gonna help you be a star in this league. You need to be on board with that.’ ”