When was the last time someone broke through the gate as a messiah for a title-starved sports town and, through his own words and deeds, became as reviled as he once was beloved?
LeBron James is the first name to come to mind. As young star athletes go, James is a direct lesson for Robert Griffin III only because neither got into legal trouble to exacerbate their popularity freefall, yet both ultimately went from pure gold to absolutely polarizing quickly.
So I sought out James for his thoughts on Griffin before the Cavaliers met the Wizards Friday night at Verizon Center.
“I can’t really comment on what he’s going through,” James explained, saying he did not know all the details of Griffin’s PR week from hell. But he did give him one concrete tip that helped him recover from his own personal backlash.
“The only thing I can tell him is make the main thing the main thing,” James said. “And that’s just worrying about playing football at a high level and being a great teammate.”
James’ nadir was, of course, “The Decision” in 2010, an ill-conceived, made-for-ESPN, free-agent announcement that coldly left his current franchise out of the loop before “taking [his] talents to South Beach.” What followed were some of the most vile reactions sports fans have ever had toward an athlete they once worshipped.
In hindsight, Griffin had a “Decision” of his own, a fork in the road that forever changed his relationship with the burgundy-and-gold legions. It was Jan. 6, 2013, halftime, NFC divisional playoff against Seattle — the moment he refused to swallow his pride and step aside for Kirk Cousins in a game in which he was hurting his team on the field as much as he was ailing physically.
It was not noble; looking back, it bordered on narcissistic. And it ended with a gruesome knee injury that further robbed Griffin of his gifts, the speed and athleticism that still don’t feel like they have returned.
I have no idea what his playbook study habits are like. But I know he has often come across as a fame junkie since that day, from the Adidas “All in for Week 1” campaign to running out with a team flag before a season opener — by himself. RGMe was harsh, but for a while it seemed appropriate.
The James analogy does not work with career accomplishments, of course. LeBron won annually, made whatever team he played on a contender — even when he pouted and preened in his youth. Griffin’s ledger is largely blank after his scintillating, rookie-of-the-year, NFC-East title 2012 season that now feels like an aberration.
Locally and nationally, Griffin is under siege. You could feel it by the way he Belichick-ed his way through his media session this past week, refusing the usual congenial banter with reporters in favor of nine painful “I’m focusing on San Francisco” responses.
The last six games of the season aren’t a referendum on Jay Gruden’s first year as coach or Bruce Allen’s first year as personnel shot-caller; they’re all about Griffin, who, incredibly, is at the crossroads of his career just three seasons after Snyder mortgaged the franchise’s future on trading up and plucking him No. 2 in the draft.
This in-a-blink journey from the precipice of a long playoff run to the abyss in popularity and quarterback ratings really is unthinkable. RGIII, the player revolutionizing the position with Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson just two winters ago, is suddenly headed toward Josh Freeman territory.
“Sometimes, you have to keep your mouth sealed and go out there and play,” John Wall advised when asked about Griffin on Friday night. “I always took the blame, because I’m the leader and franchise guy. He can get people back on his side if he does that and plays well.”
Brendan Haywood, a longtime Wizards center and still a huge fan of local teams, actually didn’t buy the LeBron analogy. “I see R.G. as more Gilbert Arenas in a way,” said Haywood, now a backup in Cleveland. “Now it’s a totally different situation with how Gil ruined everything he did good with fans. But the popularity factor was incredible for both at the beginning.
“I’ve seen Gil on billboards. Gil was D.C. Same with R.G. The city embraced them, loved everything about them at first. And then in a short amount of time . . . ” Hayward whistled as if a bomb were descending. “Everybody went against them. So fast.”
He shook his head. “It killed me that he overthrew [DeSean Jackson] two times, passes that would have changed the game. When you’re playing poorly and you’re losing, and you make comments like you’re a winner, you become a lightning rod for criticism. I hope RG pulls it out, but I see do see similarities with him and Gil, how they had it and lost it.”
There is still time for Griffin to validate the No. 1 picks given up for him and the grand hope that brought him to Washington. But with the walls closing in from every direction, with his bandwagon all but deserted, he is running out of snaps and games to turn this around before the team has to decide whether to hold onto him or cut bait.
Here goes nothing, I know.
If you can, erase 2012 from your brain. Instead, look at Griffin as a struggling, recently rehabbed NFL quarterback trying to reclaim his confidence in a new offense, in the middle of an unsightly 3-7 season.
Slammed to the ground by other teams, slammed by his own coaching staff and fan base, psychologically dissected by everyone, he’s a wounded pro athlete, gun shy because he thinks he’s going to get hurt again, trying to hang on to the only job he knows how to do.
After all the fame-junkie missteps, all the needless drama, what makes you root against a guy like that Sunday in San Francisco? I can’t. It’s illogical, but implausibly I think he somehow flips the script again. After how it started, I just can’t believe it will end this badly.
But then, I once thought the same about Arenas.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.