Redskins bet big on Robert Griffin III

Thomas Boswell
Columnist March 10, 2012

Desperation is often the tinder that sparks the most blazing trades in sports history. A few times in your life, there is a jump-off-Niagara Falls deal so brave and so risky that, the instant you hear it, you know it will be debated for decades, maybe even generations. Add Robert Griffin III to the list.

The Washington Redskins just paid the highest price in history for a chance to grab an unproven college player. In the NFL, future draft picks are far more precious than money, and the Redskins gave up their first-round choices in 2012, ’13 and ’14 and this year’s second-rounder, too. The St. Louis Rams have them now and, with drafting competence, may turn them into four remarkable standouts, or, if they choose, as many as 10 useful players.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Maybe the Redskins and their fans will, eventually, feel about this electric, exciting news the way Broncos fans still rejoice at the memory of getting John Elway from the Baltimore Colts for Mark Herrmann, Chris Hilton and a draft pick that became somebody named Ron Solt.

Or they may grin the way Cowboys fans still get a tingle recalling Jimmy Johnson’s inspired 18-player deal in 1989 that sent Herschel Walker to the Vikings for five players and six draft picks. Those 11 pieces were eventually transformed into Emmitt Smith, Darren Woodson, Russell Maryland and others that formed the dog-to-dynasty leap in Dallas in the ’90s.

Derring-do and desperation don’t always equal dumb. Sometimes, “at any price” can be a bargain. From physical talents to football temperament, from classroom intelligence to responsible ebullient character, it’s hard to imagine a quarterback on whom you’d rather risk your future than RGIII. These days, everybody’s supposed to say “Yea” or “Nay,” in real time. Put me down for “Yea.” This gives the Redskins a chance to be special again within two or three years. It’s exciting. But I’m not the one going over a waterfall without a barrel.

There’s a karmic shadow over this deal, of course. It’s the apotheosis of the whole Daniel Snyder era. Just a few hours after Peyton Manning didn’t even give the Redskins a waltz on his city-hopping dance card, the team completed this blockbuster. Maybe Griffin was always Plan A. But the appearance, around the NFL, was that the Redskins hadn’t even made the first Manning cut. “We’ll-show-’em-we’re-not-dysfunctional” decisions have long been a dysfunctional Redskins trademark. But, sooner or later, one of ’em has to work, right?

The Redskins needed a huge splash for every conceivable reason: to give their fanatic fans a glimpse of glory, not more grief; to give Mike Shanahan a realistic chance to be successful again; to stay dominant in a sports market where other rivals are emerging; and to keep printing money for one of the most valuable sports franchises on earth.

Griffin’s career deserves to be measured on its merits, rather than the Redskins’ prayers or the price they paid. But the backdrop is unmistakable. The Redskins just doubled down on the very same high-profile, high-cost, high-risk (or all-of-the-above) method that has introduced Washington to Deion Sanders, Jeff George, Marty Schottenheimer, Dan Wilkinson, Bruce Smith, Steve Spurrier, Mark Brunell, Adam Archuleta, Sean Gilbert, Jim Zorn, Gregg Williams, Albert Haynesworth, Donovan McNabb and Shanahan. That the list is so long and familiar doesn’t make it any less staggering. RGIII will either demolish an amazing losing streak or confirm a curse.

Even Redskins fans may gulp when they realize how much their team just gave up. Eli Manning, who just won his second Super Bowl for the Giants, cost two first-round picks, plus a third and fifth-round pick. Get out your Draft Chart: 1-1-1-2 blows away 1-1-3-5.

What makes the Skins’ decision so breathtaking is the absolute unpredictability of quarterbacks, even the very best, once they hit the NFL. In the last 20 years, 17 quarterbacks have been picked either first or second overall. In their rookie seasons, they had a combined record of 50-115. So, don’t expect too much too soon. The first year doesn’t really count. Peyton and Eli Manning went 3-13 and 1-6 as first-pick rookies. Matthew Stafford, Sam Bradford and Cam Newton were 2-8, 7-9 and 6-10.

It’s the second and third years that tell you the truth. In those seasons, our 17 quarterbacks went 94-84-1 and 95-84. So, in general, picks at the Griffin level tend to work out well, more often than not. Except that the “nots” — all just as praised as Griffin, give or take a little — include JaMarcus Russell, Tim Couch, Ryan Leaf and Rick Mirer. Of our 17, six have, so far, been exceptional enough to vindicate almost any cost.

The Redskins might as well roll the dice on a college player because mega-deals for proven NFL stars have just as bad a track record — probably worse — than projecting elite quarterbacks. When Walker fetched those 11 players-plus-picks for Dallas, he was already an established NFL star. (The deal was a disaster for the Vikings.) In ’59, the Los Angeles Rams, rabid to “win now” after an 8-4 season, traded seven players and two picks to get Ollie Matson, who had been All-Pro four times. The Rams immediately went 2-10. Their GM, Pete Rozelle, got fired; he had to settle for becoming the most famous commissioner in sports.

The NFL has seen plenty of high-stakes gambles for college players. The Redskins just surpassed the daffiness of former Saints coach Mike Ditka, who swapped eight picks, including his entire ’99 draft class, to Washington to get Ricky Williams. Just had to have him. It’ll put the Saints on the map. However, in total value, Ditka’s debacle didn’t approach the Rams’ bounty (so to speak). For dealing the Williams pick, the Redskins eventually ended up with Champ Bailey, Jon Jansen and six-time Pro Bowler Chris Samuels.

Fans will remember this day the rest of their lives, just as Ollie Matson, Herschel Walker and Ricky Williams are still recalled as players who, at one time, were worth almost an entire team of mortal men.

That’s where Robert Griffin III is now, a rookie made mythical before he was ever chosen in the draft. His job is simple: Just play. He didn’t make the trade. The Redskins did. They had a need as super-sized as the deed. Turns out the “III” stood for first-round picks.

For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/boswell

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