He was entering the second season of a four-year, $4.4 million contract, which pays him an average salary of $1.107 million.
Cravens has missed the past three weeks after having arthroscopic surgery on his knee. He was supposed to return by Week 1. Cravens had worked on the side with trainers at times over the past three weeks and was expected to return to practice this week.
But Saturday night, Cravens informed his fellow defensive backs in a group text message that he was retiring, a second person familiar with the situation said.
Cravens, in the group message, praised each of his teammates for their skills and expressed gratitude for them and their role in his life. He said that he had enjoyed playing with them, but was retiring on Sunday and ended the text message with, “Peace out,” and then removed himself from the group chat. Later Sunday, Cravens posted a message on Instagram thanking “those who showed their true colors today. Both positively in support and negatively in misunderstanding and frustration.”
“Either way my response is the same to both groups, I love yal [sic] and thank yal [sic],” he wrote. “God Bless.”
Members of the group chat were both shocked and angered by Cravens’s decision, players said. Some said Cravens had let them down. The move also occurred the day after officials trimmed the roster to 53 players, so the move — and its timing — potentially cost another player an opportunity to make the team.
The Redskins didn’t make coach Jay Gruden available to reporters on Sunday, which marked a change in the schedule. The coach was originally scheduled to address reporters the day after Saturday’s final roster cuts. But team PR said Gruden now will speak to reporters on Tuesday, the next day of practice.
The Redskins didn’t issue an official statement on Cravens. Instead they listed him as being placed on the exempt/left team list along with a corresponding move: the waiver claim of offensive lineman T.J. Clemmings. The team denied requests for interviews with Allen, senior vice president of player personnel Doug Williams and Gruden. Neither Cravens nor his agent responded to requests for comment.
Gruden did, however, address Cravens’s absence with the team following Sunday’s practice. Players said Gruden told them that Cravens was considering retirement and had some personal matters to tend to and would be away for the next month. The coach told the players that he couldn’t go into further details, but asked that everyone say a prayer for Cravens.
“It’s shocking, but it is what it is,” said free safety D.J. Swearinger, who had taken Cravens under his wing since signing with Washington in March. “He’s got to handle what he needs to handle, whether it’s mental, whether it’s family. We’re here to support him, but that’s something tough. I’m not in those shoes so I can’t speak on it. I’m praying for him and hope he’ll be back.”
While the retirement announcement came as a surprise to the defensive backs group, Cravens had discussed retirement with members of the coaching staff for the past month, sources say. Cravens waffled, but as recently as last week had told multiple people that he was excitedly looking forward to opening the regular season in the starting lineup. Some cautioned Cravens not to come back prematurely, but he insisted that he would be healthy and ready to play Week 1.
Talk of retirement from the NFL actually began last year, two people close to Cravens said.
Former defensive coordinator Joe Barry started Cravens as an inside linebacker his rookie year, believing that his athleticism would serve the team well in pass coverage against running backs and tight ends. But Cravens — undersized for the position — suffered a concussion in Week 4 and missed the next two games. Cravens returned to action in Week 7, but teammates sensed his zeal for the game had started to wane. In Week 14, Cravens suffered a biceps injury that wound up sidelining him the final three weeks of thee season. After the second injury, Cravens didn’t report to Redskins Park for three days, and didn’t tell anyone why. After failed attempts by the coaching staff to reach him, several teammates reached out to Cravens, who informed them that he was contemplating retirement.
That response to injury wasn’t the first such instance in Cravens’s career. At one point, while playing at Southern California, he went missing for three days after getting hurt and considered quitting football, according to a person with knowledge of Cravens’s past.
The Redskins eventually convinced Cravens to return to the facility last season, and although he didn’t play again in 2016, coaches and officials granted his request to move from linebacker to safety, where he believed he was best suited.
Washington’s coaches have since tried to handle Cravens — at 22, still one of the youngest players in the NFL — with care.
Excited about his skill set and potential as a playmaker, they named him the starting strong safety entering spring practices even though Cravens hadn’t played that position full-time since his freshman year at USC. The Redskins also didn’t use Cravens on any special teams units during training camp or the preseason. Teammates, coaches, officials and former Redskins players had worked to support Cravens on and off the field.
The California native recently had struggled with homesickness, and had moved his parents to Northern Virginia, two people said. (Cravens is close to his parents and bought his mother a new car and his father a new pickup for Christmas.) Some people sensed that family matters had weighed on Cravens since last season. But they didn’t know if that factored in his retirement deliberations.
Most Redskins players approached in the locker room said they had just learned of Cravens’s decision, but they wished him well as they tried to turn their attention to Sunday’s season opener against Philadelphia.
“I’m here for him and will support him. It’s one of my good friends, but at the same time, we’ve got to work,” linebacker Mason Foster said. “We’re here focusing on Philly and focusing on football, so, best wishes. He’s a great player and great person, but people have lives outside of football, and sometimes you have to handle that first. Hopefully he gets it resolved and comes back and helps us win some games this year.”
Because Cravens is still unproven as a safety, teammates didn’t paint his absence as a dramatic loss. They believe he can help them on the field but only if his off-field issues are resolved and if he is able to train his focus back on football.
“This game tests your wits in every form and every facet of your body and mental everything,” cornerback Josh Norman said. “Because if you’re not ready to come back and then play and give it your all and your heart isn’t in it, then you’re seriously going to go out there and get hurt. I mean like, seriously. Because this is no game. This is no child’s-play game. This is a grown man’s sport. Grown men are colliding amongst each other. It can be deadly. You don’t want to go out there half-stepping or may think one thing and then false-step another way. If your whole heart is not there and your ability and everything you’re thinking [is not there], it’s going to play out on the field. You’re going to see it. You want to be most definitely sure that you’re right before you can do anything else.”
Redskins officials, when forming the 53-man roster on Saturday, went with five safeties (Cravens, Swearinger, Deshazor Everett, rookie Montae Nicholson and first-year pro Stefan McClure).
For now, the Redskins are expected to roll with Everett as their starting strong safety. The third-year pro took over that position after Cravens’s knee surgery. The 6-foot, 195-pound Texas A&M product, who last year converted from cornerback to safety, recorded nine tackles and a pass breakup during the preseason. He also is a key special teams contributor.
“I have the total confidence in [Everett], man,” Swearinger said. “Since [Cravens] got hurt, we’ve been out there. We’ve been making great strides. We’ve been getting better and better every week, play by play, so I have full and total confidence in Deshazor.”
If Cravens does retire, he will become another high-profile draft pick of former general manager Scot McCloughan’s that has not panned out. Washington released running back Matt Jones (McCloughan’s third-round pick in 2015) on Saturday a year after handing him the starting job and then benching him midway through the season. The jury remains out on 2016 first-round pick Josh Doctson, a wide receiver who played in only two games last season after dealing with Achilles’ tendon injuries that doctors could never diagnose.
Staff writer Liz Clarke also contributed to this report.