So one of the most polarizing players in professional sports has signed up with one of the most chaotic franchises in the NFL to play one of the most unstable positions, on any team, in any league. Godspeed, RGIII. Might want to rent, not buy.
Thursday’s news that Robert Griffin III was headed to Cleveland felt both agonizing and inevitable to many who watched his pro career ascend, and then crash, and then implode, and then attract rabid muskrats with radioactive teeth.
Griffin just finished up four of the wackiest years imaginable, in which he played for two head coaches, was benched twice, was hailed as a savior and doused with scorn, prompted Washington’s most exciting season in a generation and slogged through Washington’s worst back-to-back campaigns in 20 years. No matter who was to blame, Griffin was the subject of countless anonymously sourced reports, dominated social media, and ensured that the Redskins were a fixture on sports-radio shows, Web sites and television programs around the country.
Maybe the only quarterback who prompted more heated arguments without playing in a Super Bowl over the last four years was that kid with the catchy nickname and the love of Vegas, the one whose every utterance guaranteed a slew of headlines and stories that readers would complain about even as they voraciously devoured. And now Johnny Football will pass the Cleveland quarterbacking torch to Griffin. The pass will land out of bounds. Then Griffin will injure himself trying to pick it up.
Take away the jokes and hyperbole, and in some ways, this is an ideal landing spot for Griffin. The expectation levels will be one or two notches above nuclear winter; if Griffin starts, say, 12 games and the Browns flirt with .500, he might be posing for another statue. He had also talked with the Jets; a move to New York would have meant dozens of back-page tabloid appearances and weekly recitations of his famous farewell note.
Had he gone to Denver or San Francisco, Griffin would be measured against very recent Super Bowl campaigns; in Cleveland he’ll be measured against a fetid pool of sadness. And if he fails, much of his failure will be attributed to general Clevelandness, his chewed-up career laid to rest next to the wreckage of Weeden and Wynn, Frye and Quinn.
But that’s being reasonable. This is no time for reason. This is a time to note with astonishment that after being drafted by a sometimes dysfunctional franchise coming off three straight losing seasons and four straight last-place finishes — and after briefly reviving that organization — Griffin is now joining a frequently dysfunctional franchise coming off eight straight losing seasons and five straight last-place finishes. You’ve heard of going from the penthouse to the outhouse; this is going straight into the potty itself.
Since Griffin entered the NFL, the Browns are 19-45, tied for the fourth-worst mark in the NFL. Over that span, Cleveland quarterbacks rank 30th in passing touchdowns, 30th in completion percentage, 27th in interceptions and 25th in sacks.
The Browns are on their fourth head coach in five seasons. They have the NFL’s third-longest playoff drought. Since returning to the NFL in 1999, they have the league’s fewest points, worst scoring differential and worst record. Some RGIII fans hoped he might stumble into stability and quiet at his next stop. Instead, he stumbled into a rave filled with grown-men in dog masks throwing balloons filled with spoiled milk.
Sometime next fall, Griffin seems likely to become the 26th quarterback to attempt a pass for the Browns over the last 16 seasons. You know how many of them left Cleveland with a winning record? Try one: Brian Hoyer, he of the magisterial 10-7 mark. Maybe Griffin doesn’t need to flirt with .500 to get that statue; flirting with .400 should earn him at least a parade.
This is to say nothing of his weapons; Griffin is leaving DeSean Jackson and Jordan Reed and joining, um, Brian Hartline and Gary Barnidge. Or of his competition; he’s leaving a division where all four teams finished in the bottom half of the league in DVOA last year, and joining a division where Cincinnati and Pittsburgh were in the top third, and Baltimore typically joins them. Or of his predecessors; Washington’s previous first-round quarterback, Jason Campbell, made the final starts of his NFL career in Cleveland. He played through injury there; the NFL never gave him another chance to start.
“You fight through that type of stuff, and then they’re like ‘We don’t care no more,'” Campbell told me in the fall. “It feels like we’re just a paper bag they just crumble up and throw away.”
Teams are allowed to reboot; look at what the Redskins did in 2015, or what they did with Griffin in 2012. Players are allowed to reboot, too. Griffin is joining a coach with a history of bringing out the best in quarterbacks. He should be healthy after a year of running hills at Redskins Park, and he probably won’t need to worry about befriending Cleveland’s owner, because who would want to be friends with Jimmy Haslam?
But the fact remains: when the Redskins drafted Griffin, more than a few people worried he was going to the NFL’s least hospitable landing spot for a promising quarterback. This week, he might have done worse.
My friend Matt Johnson, who designs t-shirts that jab at the tender spots in a sports fan’s soul, sells two varieties that list more than 20 starting quarterbacks for NFL teams, men who have come and gone like so many Griffin hashtags.
More on Griffin: