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Robert Griffin III’s latest injury might be the last chapter in his sad saga

Robert Griffin III was placed on injured reserve by the Browns on Monday. (Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

On Sunday afternoon, facing an impossible situation, Robert Griffin III deluded himself into believing he could still prevail. On third and forever from his own 4-yard line, with the Cleveland Browns down 12 late in the fourth quarter, Griffin dropped back to pass. He found nobody open, and he sprinted from the pocket, toward the right sideline, not quite as fast as he could when he achieved momentary transcendence for the Washington Redskins.

He faced a choice: Go directly out of bounds or slither for another inconsequential yard or two. Griffin darted ahead, or at least he tried. Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Jalen Mills smashed into Griffin’s left shoulder, knocking Griffin’s head back with neck-snapping force, leaving him in a crumpled heap.

“The guy kind of surprised me there on the sidelines, trying to get out of bounds,” Griffin said afterward. “It was just an unfortunate play. Just trying to fight for as many yards as we could, trying to score a touchdown and put us in position to have a chance.”

The result of the hit became clear Monday afternoon: Griffin suffered a fractured caracoid bone in his left shoulder. Griffin will not undergo surgery “at this time,” according to the Browns, but he will be evaluated again in three to four weeks and he is expected to miss “an extended period of time.” Placed by the Browns on injured reserve, Griffin must now sit out at least eight games, even if healthy. What may have been Griffin’s last chance to reestablish himself as an NFL starter lasted about 56 minutes of game time.

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Only somebody with the most unyielding belief, somebody like Griffin, could imagine Griffin again taking the reins of an NFL franchise. Griffin occupies a space from which NFL success stories do not spring forth. He spent all of last year benched and most of the previous season injured, and now he faces another long recovery from injury. Griffin has started 21 games the past four seasons, and who knows when he will start another one.

It’s sad, is what it is. Griffin arrived here through a toxic combination of the Redskins’ disregard for his future and his own hubris. They should never have played him in the second half of that wild-card game at FedEx Field in January 2013, the juncture at which his leg imploded and his promise splintered. He should have never pushed so hard to return for the next season’s opener — “All In For Week One” and such — and the Redskins never should have facilitated it. Griffin bears some responsibility, but he’ll never recover from how the Redskins under owner Dan Snyder and Coach Mike Shanahan at once enabled him and failed to protect him.

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The incredible part of Griffin’s saga is how it has seemed to warp time. Four years ago, almost to the day, Griffin fired a touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon inside the New Orleans Superdome, fell on his backside and raised both arms above his head — the “Griffining” pose that burst out of his indelible debut. Without the benefit of a calendar, we might guess it happened a decade ago. Or a generation. So much has transpired between then and now.

Griffin took the D.C. region on a magic carpet down the stretch of 2012, challenging for MVP, winning rookie of the year and leading a division title run. His knee buckled in the playoffs. He returned too soon. He quarreled with Shanahan and buddied up to Snyder. He failed to mature as a passer, and at the start of 2014 he suffered a hard-luck ankle injury that further inhibited his development. When he returned, new coach Jay Gruden publicly critiqued him to the point of cruelty. He lost his starting spot after he suffered a preseason concussion. For all of 2015, he became a spectator but, to his everlasting credit, never a distraction.

Maybe the saddest part about his truncated return is how quickly a seemingly good situation unraveled. In Cleveland, he faced none of the onerous expectations that came when the Redskins traded a bushel of picks to select him second overall. In Coach Hue Jackson, he had the full support of an intelligent, respected offensive mind. After his offseason and preseason work, teammates named him captain, to which even Jackson expressed surprise. The Browns lacked talent in many areas of their roster, but their weapons at wide receiver constituted a strength.

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“It’s very unfortunate, Robert came in and has worked extremely hard to learn our offense and earn the respect of his teammates,” Jackson said. “This is a tough loss because everyone has seen how invested he has been in this team and his dedication to the work needed to improve his craft. We all know these are the realities of the NFL, injuries occur and you have to find ways to overcome them so they don’t impede your progress. Robert will do everything in his power to rehab and get healthy.”

Griffin’s season unraveled owing to his fundamental flaw. He still somehow lacks the instinct to protect himself on a football field, even after all the punishment to which the sport has subjected him. He appeared to want to go out of bounds before Mills blasted him, but he ran straight into him. It represented a lack of spatial awareness or a dearth of judgment, or some mixture of the two. He had again taken a brutal hit most other quarterbacks find ways to avoid.

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At the start of Griffin’s postgame news conference Sunday, according to longtime Browns beat reporter Mary Kay Cabot, Griffin’s cellphone rang. “It’s my mother,” he said. “She’s very worried about me.”

One week offers too narrow a sample to fairly judge a quarterback. But on Sunday, Griffin mostly resembled the ineffective passer from 2014, the last time he had played after spending every week of 2015 on Washington’s sideline, inactive. Griffin completed 12 of 26 passes for 190 yards and no touchdowns with an interception and took three sacks. He hit two deep passes to Terrelle Pryor and Corey Coleman, always his strength. But he remained inconsistent throwing intermediate passes and appeared uncertain in the pocket. Without the injury, it still would have been a discouraging performance.

Griffin’s meteoric ascent feels like it happened so long ago, and his stunning, sad fall plunged further Sunday. It seems improbable, maybe impossible, he can ever again return to start at quarterback, let alone reach such heights. For his whole career, to both his benefit and detriment, Griffin has outwardly possessed unwavering belief. He will need it now more than ever.