INDIANAPOLIS – Jay Gruden raised some eyebrows Wednesday when he announced the decision to stick with Robert Griffin III as the starting quarterback entering the 2015 season.
Gruden’s exact words were: “Robert ended the season as the starter, and we anticipate that going forward, and you know, we anticipate both of them, [Griffin and Kirk Cousins], coming in with a good frame of mind and eager to get better.”
That prompted this follow-up question: “Just to clarify — does that mean Robert is the presumptive starter, or will there be an open competition for the starting job?”
Gruden responded, “You know, we’ll go into the season with Robert as the No. 1 guy, and you know, it’s up to Robert to continue to grow and mature as a quarterback and as a person. Then moving forward, we just want to see some improvement. It’s up to us as a staff to get more out of him.”
Quickly, fans and critics questioned why the coach would make such a move after entering the offseason with the stance that the team would hold a competition for the starting quarterback job.
Griffin’s getting yet another thing handed to him without earning it!
Daniel Snyder’s still telling Gruden what to do!
What a sham. Of course go with the lesser quarterback and keep the better guy on the bench!
What happens when Cousins plays better in camp, and Griffin has been named the starter?
Simmer a bit. Here’s why Gruden said what he said, and here’s what it means for Washington’s quarterback position going forward:
It’s mid-February. The team doesn’t hit the field for its first offseason practice until May. Training camp will not begin until late July. The 2015 season opener will not take place for another six weeks after that.
Getting the nod as the anticipated starter this early in the year means very little.
Someone has to take those first-team reps when offseason practices begin. It might as well be the guy that concluded the year as the starter, the player in whom the franchise has the most invested, and the man with the most crucial questions looming over him.
Regardless of the differing opinions among of the team’s decision makers, they can all agree on one thing: Griffin has talent. That 2012 Rookie of the Year/NFC East winning campaign didn’t happen by accident.
They also agree that they have no idea if Griffin can ever make a complete transition from read-option quarterback to pure pocket passer.
There’s only one way to truly find out: Shore up all of the problem areas around Griffin, and give him the opportunity to answer all of those questions with his play – whether good or bad.
Gruden was ready to slam the book shut on Griffin when he benched him late in the year. But Snyder, the owner, and team president Bruce Allen didn’t share the opinion at the time, and still do not. Gruden had to go back to Griffin when Colt McCoy got hurt, and he made more of an effort to tailor the game plan to Griffin’s strengths. Griffin produced moderately better results.
He showed enough for Snyder and Allen to stick with their assessment. Scot McCloughan came in and reviewed Griffin’s body of work and shared sentiments that it was too soon to give up on the quarterback.
After taking inventory from top to bottom, Gruden agreed that he could have done more to help Griffin’s transition, and so he has planned out a revised approach, and hired a quarterbacks coach, Matt Cavanaugh, to ensure that Griffin and the team’s other quarterbacks received as hands-on and detailed instruction as possible.
The two, along with offensive coordinator Sean McVay, are in the process of composing a detailed program for Griffin to work his way through this offseason as he continues his education as an NFL quarterback.
Meanwhile, McCloughan conducted his inventory of the situation and concluded that the offensive line is in shambles, and that next to no quarterbacks in the league could succeed in these conditions. He is determined to emerge from free agency and the draft having achieved his goal of legitimately improving the line so Griffin has better protection, and bolstering the defense, so the offense has the support it needs.
Remember, McCloughan knows a thing or two about setting young quarterbacks up to succeed. He learned the hard way in San Francisco, where Alex Smith had a weak supporting cast and failed before gradually improving as the team around him did as well. Smith has turned into a solid quarterback now that he is surrounded by a strong roster in Kansas City. And McCloughan learned that’s a successful model, as he helped the Seahawks put a strong cast around Russell Wilson.
So, the officials and coaches in Washington are on the same page that they want to be able to say they did everything possible to get the most out of Griffin.
On Wednesday, Gruden added, “it’s up to Robert to continue to grow and mature as a quarterback and as a person. Then moving forward, we just want to see some improvement.”
Griffin will receive every opportunity during offseason “organized team activities” to apply what he is learning. He’ll enter training camp slotted to take those first-team reps and either prove he can improve, or prove that he doesn’t have it.
If improvements come, he will remain the starter. If he struggles during OTAs and still looks like he doesn’t have a clue early in camp, those first-team reps will start shifting toward someone else.
Taking another page out of McCloughan’s past, the general manager also has shown that if someone isn’t cutting it, he’ll go away from him regardless of status or paycheck. Remember how the Seahawks signed Matt Flynn to a three-year, $26 million deal in 2012, and Flynn wound up losing his job to Wilson before the season began? Flynn never started a game in Seattle.
If Cousins, or any other quarterback, looks better and is making plays (that’s what McCloughan is all about), then he’ll give Gruden the green light to change directions.
Lastly, keep in mind that this is Washington’s plan as the roster currently stands. Free agency hasn’t begun yet. If they find an affordable quarterback they believe can provide legitimate competition, then he also could alter the plan.
But saying, “We’ll see once the spring and training camp comes,” wouldn’t have done Gruden any good. Then the backlash on this big stage here at the Combine would have followed along the lines of, “Gruden refuses to name Griffin starter,” or “Gruden noncommittal on RGIII.”
So, as things stand right now, with the roster as it is, and months before Griffin will take any snaps in an upgraded offense, the plan is for him to receive every opportunity to either hold on to the job, or play his way out of it. That’s how it should be.
Mike Jones and Liz Clarke are in Indianapolis covering the NFL Combine. For more combine posts, click here.
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