As yet another NFL season slips away, the most compelling question surrounding the 1-5 Washington Redskins isn’t whether they make the playoffs or where they finish in the NFC East standings or how high their first-round draft pick rises in the worst-case scenario. It revolves around one man — Robert Griffin III — and whether he is the team’s quarterback of the future.
If Griffin, who has been sidelined by his second major leg injury in 20 months, can reclaim the promise of his rookie season and add the skill of adept pocket passer to his repertoire of high-risk, crowd-pleasing tactics, it solidifies Washington’s identity going forward and would re-energize fans weary of losing. It also would help vindicate the reputation of team owner Daniel Snyder and president Bruce Allen, who paid a king’s ransom, three first-round picks and one in the second round, to acquire the former Heisman Trophy winner in the 2012 draft.
If Griffin fails, it plunges Washington into an uncertain future, renewing a cycle of wagering big on quarterbacks of the future who never materialize.
That cycle started with Heath Shuler in 1994. Griffin is Washington’s third attempt at a franchise quarterback in the past decade, following first-round picks Patrick Ramsey (2002) and Jason Campbell (2005). In less time, the New England Patriots expended one sixth-round pick on Tom Brady, won three Super Bowls and launched a dynasty.
In the view of Redskins Coach Jay Gruden, the jury is out on Griffin’s viability.
“He has got to come out and, when he gets healthy, prove he has got the capability to be a franchise-type quarterback,” Gruden said in an interview this past week. “He showed so much promise his rookie year. The second year he gets hurt and has all those distractions. Then he comes out here, gets a fresh start and gets hurt.
“When you’re judging a quarterback, you judge progress and consistency. Right now there has been not much progress and very little consistency.”
Short-term drama is assured as Griffin prepares for his return to Washington’s starting lineup, whether that’s the Oct. 27 “Monday Night Football” clash at Dallas, as was rumored but now looks unlikely, or sometime in mid- to late-November following the Redskins’ bye week.
What will Griffin look like when he returns from the dislocated left ankle he suffered Sept. 14 in the first quarter against Jacksonville? What will Washington’s record be at the time? Will turnover-prone Kirk Cousins redeem himself in the interim or be supplanted by third-string signal-caller Colt McCoy?
It is great sporting theater. At center stage is Griffin, the leading man who is incapable of fading into the background even when injury relegates him to backup status.
There Griffin was, trotting onto FedEx Field for warmups before the Oct. 6 “Monday Night Football” game against the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, in team-issued practice gear, a pink towel tucked at his waist even though there was no occasion for sweating. Griffin wasn’t competing, and his appearance took coaches and players by surprise. Yet the ESPN cameras flocked to him like bees to honey as he threw balls on the sideline in a muscle-defining shirt, his non-throwing arm encased in a pink sleeve.
And there Griffin was this past week at Redskins Park. Not yet cleared to practice in full, he joined the team for stretching, individual drills and limited scout-team handoffs. It is routine stuff, like practicing scales before a piano lesson. But with each completion, Griffin pumped his fist and clapped as if he had just gotten a crucial first down though no defenders were bearing down.
Griffin may have suffered three leg injuries since 2009, but he has healed quickly each time. Moreover, his confidence hasn’t taken a hit.
This is a man, after all, who less than two months ago was fist-bumping former president George W. Bush at midfield of Baylor’s $266 million McLane Stadium, which Griffin’s Heisman-winning heroics are largely credited with inspiring and getting funded. The opening of the 45,000-seat stadium followed the unveiling of a larger-than-life bronze statue of Griffin outside the Brazos riverbank venue and a dedication in which Baylor’s president likened the statue to Washington’s Lincoln Memorial and New York’s Statue of Liberty.
At 24, Griffin may be an immortal in Waco, Tex. But his legacy has not yet been written in Washington.
When Griffin returns to competition, what Gruden will look for is smart decision-making in the pocket, the poise to handle pass-rush pressure in clutch situations and, above all, the ability to lead Washington to victory.
“He might miss a throw here or there, but as long as he doesn’t make the catastrophic mistake and make it about himself more than about the team, you’ve got a chance,” Gruden said.
On the job for less than 10 months, Gruden hasn’t seen enough of Griffin in live-game situations to render a verdict on whether he can operate at a high level from the pocket, which represents a shift in the explosive dual-threat ability that made him such a coveted NFL prospect.
“I’ve had him for training camp and [offseason workouts], and obviously it’s a totally different speed,” Gruden said. “One game against Houston, in which he didn’t play very well, and the first quarter against Jacksonville is all I’ve had so far. It’s not much. We’re still in evaluation process. I want to see how far he has come.”
Former Redskins general manager Charley Casserly, now an analyst with the NFL Network, was encouraged by Griffin’s limited work this season. In the 17-6 loss at Houston and his performance against Jacksonville, Casserly saw notable strides from the preseason, in which Griffin threw two interceptions and no touchdown passes, was sacked four times and earned a passer rating of 46.0
“The play he got hurt on — the throw to DeSean Jackson on the run — was one of the most athletic plays you’ll ever see,” Casserly said.
Also impressed was Terry Shea, the quarterback guru who prepared Griffin for the 2012 draft and worked with him for a week in Phoenix this spring to get him ready for a fresh start under Gruden.
After those extended workouts, which included a half-dozen of Griffin’s teammates, Shea said he was convinced Griffin was “in the right place” physically and mentally, as sharp as ever in terms of quarterback skills and excited about working with Gruden, whom he regarded as a quarterback-friendly coach.
“That’s what Robert embraces,” Shea said in a telephone interview. “He embraces a coach he can create a relationship with, that he can trust and go to at any point in time, in order for him to play at a very high level.”
Griffin had that trust with Baylor Coach Art Briles, developed it with Shea and felt good about his prospects under Gruden, according to Shea.
Shea charted Griffin’s plays against Jacksonville and noted with pride an accurate, deep throw to Jackson that ultimately wasn’t ruled a catch and a nice completion to a tight end from the pocket. Griffin also gained 22 yards rushing on well-executed zone reads and hit Jackson again after rolling out of the pocket.
“I’m confident from a physical standpoint in his ability to recover; he has proven that time and time again. And he has got the mental toughness,” Shea said. “The Washington community has such a very special player at the quarterback position.
“He has got such a passion for the game, such a drive to be the best. For him to be just average is not what he’s all about. He [has] got that self-confidence that he can bring this team to where it wants to go.”
Louis Riddick, a former NFL safety and Philadelphia Eagles executive who is now an analyst for ESPN, remains skeptical — not simply about Griffin’s durability but about the Redskins’ stability in general. He pointed to the team’s eight head coaches in the past 14 years, the turnover in the front office and a roster that’s perpetually reloading.
“I wouldn’t want to be in their position,” Riddick said. “Not only are you worried about his durability, and rightfully so, but given the fact that this team continues to struggle, it just seems like it’s a never-ending cycle of hope that constantly gets snuffed out once the season starts for various reasons.
“Some of it is nobody’s fault; some of it is people’s fault. The ground always seems to be shaking beneath the entire organization. It’s unfortunate. It doesn’t give you confidence in anything, let alone the quarterback position.”
In the view of Joe Theismann, who led Washington to the Super Bowl championship following the 1982 season, there are more unknowns than knowns about Griffin three years into his NFL career.
“He takes two steps forward, then he gets hurt and then takes one step back,” said Theismann, whose own NFL career was cut short by a catastrophic leg injury. “It’s almost like the situation is one he isn’t in control of. He just landed awkwardly on his ankle [against Jacksonville]. How do you guard against something like that?”
Whether simply bad luck or a sign of fragility, the upshot is that Griffin has started 30 games nearing the midpoint of his third season and won 13.
“Last year he wasn’t on the field healthy,” Theismann noted. “This year he hasn’t been on the field at all. We haven’t seen anything that even resembles what RGIII was as a rookie. You’d think by the third year of a quarterback’s play there would be growth and progress. Unfortunately, circumstances have prevented Robert from gaining that education.”
Once Griffin returns to the field, his won-loss record will serve as the ultimate report card.
But what if the only fair grade is an incomplete after this injury-shortened season? Or what if Gruden’s analysis of Griffin’s ability to lead the offense differs from that of Allen and Snyder? Where would that leave the Redskins?
Gruden acknowledges the coaching staff and front office may not always agree on every decision but adds that once decisions are made, “we’ve got to be all in on it.”
“I’m not going to get my own way all the time, but I’m not going to go crying in the corner and kicking the wall,” Gruden said. “But if I feel strongly about something, I will do my best to get it across to why.”
Allen says he and Gruden speak about personnel issues daily and declines to speculate on what-ifs.
“I don’t want to talk about five weeks from now, three weeks from now or two weeks from now,” Allen said in an interview. “What I’m focused on is the Tennessee game.”
As for his expectations upon Griffin’s return, Allen said: “What he had was an ankle injury. When he’s healthy, I’m sure we’re going to see the Robert Griffin we hope for.”