OWINGS MILLS, MD. — Late in October, the Baltimore Ravens jaunted off the field in Seattle, celebrating a solid victory over the sturdy Seahawks. Lamar Jackson, the NFL’s it character in 2019, ran for 116 yards and a touchdown, and the defense turned two Seattle turnovers into scores. Heroes abounded. Yet in the on-field hullabaloo, John Harbaugh found one person to hug: Robert Griffin III.
“You’re playing great football, and nobody knows it,” Griffin recalled his coach saying. “If anybody could see the type of ball that you’re playing right now, they’d be banging down our door to come and get you.”
Griffin’s contributions that day: zero passes, zero runs, zero snaps. Yet when no one was watching in the week leading up to the Seattle game, somebody had to impersonate Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in practice. Somebody has had to imitate Deshaun Watson by running and Tom Brady by standing in the pocket on Wednesdays and Thursdays, then watch silently on Sundays.
“It meant a lot for me for him to say that,” Griffin said last week at the Ravens’ team facility here. “The relationship between the coach and a quarterback is very important. Everybody sees how great a relationship that he has with Lamar because it’s out there, right? And people see it constantly. But they don’t see the relationship he has with other players, especially the guy that no one really thinks about until you need him — the backup quarterback.”
And that’s what Griffin is right now, in his own words, nothing more than “QB2 for the Baltimore Ravens.” The most electrifying player in the NFL is the man in front of Griffin on the depth chart. That’s exactly the guy Griffin once was. Won the Heisman Trophy, like Jackson did. Taken No. 2 in the draft, 30 spots ahead of where Jackson went. Turned his town and the league on their heads in his first year as a starter. All the stuff Jackson is doing for the Ravens now, Griffin did for the Washington Redskins — wait, was it really seven years ago?
“Just trying to reboot everything,” he said.
During the day, on the practice field and in meeting rooms, Griffin must embrace the behind-the-curtain nature of his job. It helps the Ravens win. It’s why he’s employed.
But let’s be clear: This is not what he wants to do. It’s not what he intends to do in the future.
“You definitely wrestle with it,” Griffin said. “I don’t want to say anything that sounds bad towards other backup quarterbacks around the league, but some guys are wired a certain way. That’s just their role, and that’s just been their role their entire career, and they don’t really want to play football. I’d like to think I’m not wired that way. It’s been a task for me to tackle since I’ve come here to Baltimore, and I knew it when I signed.”
So it’s worth the question: What does Robert Griffin III, 29-year-old former rookie of the year, believe he will be?
Before getting the answer, remember all he has been through: torn knee ligaments in Washington’s playoff loss to Seattle that ended the 2012 season, the haughty “All in for Week One” campaign to get back for 2013, a benching for the final three games that season, a dislocated ankle in 2014, a concussion in the preseason before 2015, banishment to the third quarterback role for the entirety of that year, a shoulder injury that put him on injured reserve with the Cleveland Browns in 2016 and a 2017 in which no NFL team felt he was worthy of signing.
Take all that in, and ask again: Where will you be in a year?
“If I remove myself from the moment, a moment when I’m QB2 for the Baltimore Ravens, I’m a starting quarterback,” Griffin said. “I’m leading a franchise. I’m a franchise quarterback. I’m helping a team build a winning culture to go out and not just win a couple games here and there but win Super Bowls.”
It’s a jarring answer. Frankly, it doesn’t seem tethered to reality. Since 2016, he has thrown 22 regular season passes and rushed eight times. He can’t be as fast at 29 as he was at 22, so his ability as a dual-threat quarterback . . .
“I’m faster than I was before,” Griffin said.
Come on. He was sprinter fast. At the NFL combine, he ran the 40-yard dash in a jaws-to-the-floor 4.41 seconds. Faster?
“Nobody believes me when I tell them that,” he said.
The Ravens, he said, have the data that backs up those words. The data, though, is proprietary. So what we are left with is Griffin’s obvious self-confidence — and the endorsements of his co-workers and bosses.
“Knowledge,” Jackson said. “He’s very smart.”
“Robert is a really good quarterback,” Harbaugh said. “That’s where it starts. We see it every day in practice.”
That’s what starting NFL quarterbacks say about the guys behind them, what NFL coaches say about NFL backups. It’s a courtesy, and how would anyone know otherwise? Griffin has played in four games this season, each time closing out a blowout victory for the 9-2 Ravens, the most recent Monday night in Los Angeles against the Rams.
But it’s also interesting to hear Harbaugh, unsolicited, expound on Griffin’s future: “When the role gets expanded in his career — which is going to happen at some point in time because he’s working so hard — he’s going to play really well.”
The Washington football world spends its time now, in this Thanksgiving week, debating whether Dwayne Haskins is the answer for the future at Griffin’s old position. It seems polarizing. To Griffin, the current squabbles would be cute, quaint. He was, in this town at various turns, cultural icon and scapegoat, franchise savior and self-centered star. Opinions ran the gamut. Nobody was without one.
Griffin’s current take: He’s better for it.
“If I hadn’t gone through what I went through in Washington — no matter how people want to cut it or slice it — I wouldn’t be the person that I am today,” Griffin said. “I wouldn’t be as tough as I am today. I wouldn’t be as experienced as I am today. I wouldn’t be able to help No. 8 as much as I’m able to help him today. I had to let it go. All the feelings I had toward it — good, bad or indifferent — I had to let it go. It’s part of the reboot. It was holding me down.”
When the Ravens took a flier on him as a potential backup to Jackson and Joe Flacco, then the incumbent, it seemed only to be awaiting a line late that summer in the transactions: “Baltimore Ravens — Released QB Robert Griffin III.” Except Griffin said he discovered something about himself during that year in which no one would hire him to play football, and that, in turn, pushed him to play better football. The Ravens kept him, then re-signed him, then elevated him to the point in which he is one snap away from being the starter. He links that path — and what he figures will come next — to his year without the sport.
“Sometimes when guys get away from football, their desire to play goes down, and maybe it’s time for them to move on,” he said. “My desire went up. For me, that’s why I took the opportunity last year. I said, ‘Look, if it’s going to be anybody’s fault, it’s not going to be mine.’ . . .
“Not a lot of guys who were the former second pick in the draft, made enough money to retire, would be willing to do that.”
And so QB2 for the Baltimore Ravens will do his job this week, helping prepare his team’s defense for Jimmy Garoppolo and the San Francisco 49ers. His best days in his current gig are those when defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale comes to him and says, “All you need to do this week is be RGIII.”
“To me, they’re just saying, ‘Look, we think very highly of you, so we need you to go out there and just be you because what you present out there to the defense is better than what they see on game day,’ ” Griffin said.
Someone, he figures, will eventually come to him and say, “We think highly enough of you to be our starter.” Yet this is Robert Griffin III we’re talking about. He will not be placed in a box with other backup quarterbacks. And he will toss aside whatever limits you set for him in the future.
“I want to be an inspiration to people,” Griffin said. “I want to be God’s comeback story. I’ll take that. I’ll start from the bottom.”
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