Robert Griffin III knee injury: Don’t panic; the good QBs always come back

Thomas Boswell
Columnist January 11, 2013

There, there, dry your eyes. Have a nice hot toddy, maybe with some rum in it? It’s going to be all right. It’s not as bad as you think. Oh, it’s bad. Robert Griffin III really did rip up his knee very badly last Sunday.

But the Redskins quarterback in 2020 will still be RGIII.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

That’s a promise, or at least 95 percent of a promise. And in that distant season he will still be an excellent quarterback and still the key to the future.

This is a big detour, a waste in time and pain, a mishandling of a resource. But Griffin plays the one position in sports — quarterback in the NFL — where almost nobody with an accurate arm, a football brain and toughness ever disappears before he is in his 30s, and often mid-30s or later.

Injured? They almost all get injured. “Kill the quarterback” has been the central strategy of the NFL for generations. But they come back. Then some get hurt another time or two. But they seem to last forever. And, since the game “slows down” the longer you play it, the better most of them become.

The Washington Post’s LaVar Arrington, Dan Steinberg, Jason Reid and Jonathan Forsythe peer into their collective crystal balls to offer their bold predictions for the Redskins in 2013. (The Washington Post)

The longevity of NFL quarterbacks is staggering, regardless of their size, playing style or injury history. Scrambling, agile quarterbacks such as John Elway, Steve Young, Roger Staubach, Joe Montana, Warren Moon, Fran Tarkenton, Brett Favre, Joe Theismann and Randall Cunningham were still exceptional starters — running judiciously but still crushing foes — when they were 38, 37, 37, 38, 41, 38, 40, 36 and 35.

Once a quarterback has been identified as high quality, like RGIII, he has nine lives. Dan Marino, Kurt Warner, Dan Fouts, Donovan McNabb, John Unitas, Jim Kelly, John Hadl, Sonny Jurgensen and Terry Bradshaw were still their team’s starters when they were 38, 38, 36, 34, 37, 36, 35, 36 and 33. You think they didn’t get hurt? Most ended up covered with scars.

Troy Aikman, driven out of the game by concussions, was still the Cowboys’ starter at 34. The most famous “bad knees” quarterback ever, Joe Namath, was certainly inhibited by his limping legs. But he was still an effective starter at 31 and was still in the NFL at 34. Get a grip, folks.

Robert Griffin III is 22.

Just be patient, don’t rush him back. Will he be 100 percent himself again or only 90 or 95 percent? We can’t know. Will it be 2014 before he’s as rehabilitated as he’ll ever be? Maybe.

But the idea that Griffin’s career is in jeopardy is ridiculous. He had knee surgery, not a lobotomy. He’ll be fine. History says so.

You probably suspected, with a bit of pity, that I’d study the career of every quarterback in history to see what it said about RGIII. I looked up every quarterback of the Super Bowl era. My “filter” was just one first-rate season — a year, just one, when he ranked in the best 250 NFL seasons in any of three categories: touchdown passes, yards or quarterback rating.

How many of them had their careers “killed early” by injury — or by any other factor on earth?

Here’s the list of decent quarterbacks who, for any reason whatsoever, never started at least 10 games in a season after the age of 30:

Don Majkowski and Byron Leftwich were 25 in their last year with 10 or more starts; Tony Eason, Derek Anderson and Daunte Culpepper were 27; Kyle Orton and Bernie Kosar were 28; Brian Griese, Scott Mitchell, Aaron Brooks and Neil Lomax were 29. Though he didn’t make any of the top 250 lists, let’s include Greg Cook, too.

Most of them simply lost their jobs as starters because they weren’t very good. Or they got fat or had non-injury issues. In the past 50 years, you can count on the fingers of one hand all the quarterbacks whose careers were killed (or even damaged so they weren’t effective starters) by an injury before they were 30 years old.

I thought I’d find lots of early-career sad stories, like Baltimore’s Bert Jones, never the same after age 26 though he was still a starter at 30. But those examples of disaster are rarities: running backs, doomed; quarterbacks, indestructible. You’re more likely to find great quarterbacks still rolling at 35, like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Few run out of gas before 31.

One huge factor is experience. There may not be any skill in any sport where older players have as much advantage as they do at NFL quarterback. You start off far behind the league’s learning curve, befuddled by half of the shifting and faking at the line of scrimmage. But before 30, the league is trying to catch you. You’re doing the deceiving, innovating and dictating.

How well and how much will Griffin be able to run when he returns? It matters, but maybe not a great deal. After watching him get knocked out in three of his 16 starts this season, what Redskin coach is ever again going to allow RGIII to run the ball 120 times, whether he gains 815 yards or not?

Griffin blew up his knee at Baylor, now again. What is it we don’t understand? The slim Griffin isn’t fragile, but he’s not extremely durable.

Aaron Rodgers is a mobile quarterback and an effective runner in crucial spots. He averages about 60 carries for 300 yards every year. That’s a good model. More isn’t necessary. Given RGIII’s history, more might be nuts. If a team doesn’t willfully destroy a quarterback, he should last a decade.

Gray winter days and long winter nights are here. Gloomy thoughts are a season disorder and the Griffin grumps are now a Washington epidemic.

They shouldn’t be. RGIII’s injury hangs like a pall. But knees heal. Quarterbacks get hurt, but they also come back. And every year, they get smarter, about reading defenses and surviving minefields. That’s a law.

In 2020, and maybe even 2025 when he’ll “only” be 35, still a prime age for many quarterbacks, Robert Griffin III will probably still start for the Redskins. Repeat those words as needed. But believe them, too. They’re true.

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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