All these men, and others, arrived in Washington to undo the team’s past disappointments while delivering glowing bouquets of happiness. All enjoyed at least brief spurts of broad popularity, the kind that would spur casual fans to buy a jersey or t-shirt, or maybe even a season ticket. All eventually spawned debate and dissent and dissatisfaction. And all these men, who arrived in Washington with sterling football reputations, left Ashburn coated with that familiar glaze of chaos. Doesn’t wash off so easily, either, as the still-unemployed Shanahan could attest.
The hiring of a real general manager in Scot McCloughan, and last season’s workmanlike successes, offered a hint at a different sort of future. Griffin’s release on Monday offered a reminder of the rotten past, in which years of organizational decay were papered over with glossy promises. Every few years, there was a new bold-named arrival, who had known nothing but success elsewhere — and whose name quickly headlined emails about the season ticket wait-list. Other than Joe Gibbs, these men departed amid controversy, the sense that things never went the way they were planned.
There was no closer parallel to Griffin than Arrington, another No. 2 overall pick with freakish athletic gifts and a Hollywood grin. Both players were college superstars whose jerseys filled the stands at FedEx Field. Both churned out highlight-reel plays. Both were beloved by fans. Both became close with the owner. Both eventually fell out of favor and were benched. And both dominated local sports-talk radio for months on end, even after the team had moved on.
Arrington, now an NFL Network analyst (and a friend of mine), has praised the new-look Redskins for their apparently productive direction. But it’s still hard to ignore the dismal departure of yet another brightly highlighted football name. They come here with so much hope. They leave with their suitcases full of what-might-have-beens.
“You have so many people come and go, because they’re used to sell the agenda,” Arrington told me after Griffin was benched for the final time. “And once they can’t sell the agenda, you replace them with someone who can sell fresh and new hope.”
The Griffin wars have been waged long enough, and there’s probably no use in picking through the carnage. We’re in the Kirk Cousins era now, and those wispy dreams of Griffin becoming the most popular athlete in D.C. history have floated off.
But even his critics should acknowledge that the RGIII experience was one of squandered potential and unmet expectations. Washington invested nearly unprecedented resources in one stock, and wound up holding a worthless piece of paper covered with personal logos. That seems to be the pattern. The endings are just as melancholy as the beginnings were hyperbolic.
“Have we raised the bar or what?” owner Dan Snyder said after drafting Arrington and Chris Samuels in 2000. “Obviously we will only be satisfied with the Super Bowl.”
“His ability to energize players and teams is unprecedented,” Snyder said in a statement after hiring Spurrier in 2002. “The Redskins deserve to be back at the Super Bowl, and I am immensely confident that Steve is the coach to get us there.”
“We were looking for a man who … could lead our team on and off the field, lead our coaches on and off the field to the greatest heights,” Bruce Allen said after hiring Shanahan in 2010. “Ladies and gentlemen, we got our man.”
“Adding Donovan really gets us going,” Snyder said after the trade for McNabb three months later. “We have a lot of confidence — we’ve restored our confidence.”
“This is a top pick in the draft, a Heisman winner, quarterback,” Snyder after Washington drafted Griffin in 2012. “It’s a big deal for anyone, and for Redskins Nation, it’s as good as it gets.”
It’s always as good as it gets, until it becomes worse than you could have imagined. And like the McNabb tale and the Shanahan story, the Griffin plot went spectacularly awry. There was the catastrophic injury that many blamed on his coach. The back-and-forth arguments in the media over his recovery. Two benchings in two years by two different coaches. A fan base divided against itself. And finally, an entire season spent on the 53-man roster, in which Griffin didn’t play a single snap.
When you pay three first-round picks and a second-rounder for one player, and he doesn’t commit any crimes or lose any limbs, the end shouldn’t come four years later, and it shouldn’t look like this. Either the player was woefully misjudged when he was drafted, or the team failed to take advantage of his abilities.
You can fault Griffin for much of his decay: bad news conferences, excessive sloganeering, an inflated ego, too many commercials, “All In For Week One,” an inability to avoid the pass rush, a failure to get better. In the world of athlete transgressions, these seem on the mild side, but that’s a matter of opinion. Whoever was at fault, though, this counts as organizational failure. The Redskins couldn’t keep Griffin healthy, couldn’t keep an immature kid from creating ridiculous headlines, couldn’t find a coach to rescue their prized player’s career, and couldn’t salvage anything of value from their investment. If you buy a Gauguin and store it in a barn, you probably shouldn’t blame the painting when it starts to smell.
That the St. Louis Rams didn’t do anything with all those draft picks doesn’t change this basic fact: Washington went all-in on Griffin, and wound up with one terrific high and three years of hangover. If this were a one-off occurrence, maybe you could chalk it up to Griffin’s eccentricities. This isn’t a one-off occurrence. The Redskins drafted three first-round quarterbacks in a decade; all left as disappointments.
“The reason why it keeps happening is because you [haven’t had] a system in place that’s conducive to having sustained success,” Arrington said. “And when you don’t have a system that’s conducive to having sustained success, ultimately everyone’s going to come up short. Everyone’s going to come up short. The coach, the front office, the players, it doesn’t matter; they’re going to come up short.”
The worst seems like it could be behind us, that foul cycle of hyped arrivals and polarizing departures, what Arrington described as a marketing machine that’s “going to bring you in and spit you out.” The Redskins have, for too long, been running a gleaming clinic where people entered healthy and left with a sickness. Griffin didn’t help himself here. But the clinic needed fixing just as much as the patients.