With Robert Griffin III, it was always about more than just football. He wasn’t going to be merely a quarterback back when he arrived in Washington in 2012. He was destined to be the savior of the Redskins, the future face of the National Football League, a symbol of hope and pride for African Americans in this city and beyond. And for a while, about one season’s worth of games, he was all of those things.
Some two years later, a time span that somehow feels both impossibly short and unimaginably long, the RGIII era appears to be over in Washington. Late Tuesday night, reports emerged that Jay Gruden, the Redskins’ rookie head coach, planned to bench Griffin for Sunday’s game against Indianapolis, a move Gruden confirmed Wednesday.
Although the team has made no pronouncement about Griffin’s status for the rest of the season and Gruden went to great lengths to say the Redskins have not given up on him, people within the organization said it’s highly unlikely Griffin will return next season. Around the league, the decision — sitting Griffin, 24, in favor of 28-year-old journeyman Colt McCoy — was seen as a stunning and monumental move from which there is almost certainly no turning back.
“I’m not going to give up on him,” Gruden said at a news conference Wednesday. “He’s not going to give up on himself. But as far as the future [is concerned], we don’t know.”
Griffin’s downfall in D.C. has been unprecedented in both its swiftness and its steep trajectory — from the highs of 2012, when Griffin was a record-setting rookie who led the Redskins to their first division title in 13 years, to the nadir of the past few weeks, with Griffin reduced to a battered and helpless figure who is, in a pointed critique from Gruden 10 days ago, “not even close to [being] good enough [for] what we expect from the quarterback position.”
With this week’s move, Griffin now has been benched by two different coaches, in favor of two different backups, in two different seasons.
The enormous cost of the Griffin era can be measured in cold football terms: from the three first-round and one second-round pick the Redskins had to surrender to the St. Louis Rams to secure his draft rights in March 2012 to the firing of Mike Shanahan as head coach at the end of last season to the unsightly 4-14 record Griffin has compiled as a starter the past two seasons.
But what makes Griffin’s downfall an athletic tragedy worthy of Shakespeare is human cost. Far from the magnetic superstar with the sprinter’s speed and a persona that made him millions from Madison Avenue before he took his first NFL snap, he now appears a shell of his former self, broken of body and spirit.
“You hate to see anybody beat up the way Robert has been beat up,” Joe Theismann, arguably the last Redskins signal-caller to earn the title of franchise quarterback, said in a telephone interview. “He is being beaten physically; he’s being beaten mentally. And in the court of public opinion, he is being destroyed. It’s a fickle business. The only way to keep the lions at the gate is to produce.”
By the end of this season, Griffin will have made $17.85 million from the Redskins for three seasons’ worth of labor but at a steep physical toll: one concussion, one reconstructive knee surgery, one dislocated ankle.
The Olympic-caliber athlete who in the signature play of his rookie season shot through a gap against Minnesota and sprinted to a 76-yard touchdown is long gone, replaced by a halting, limping man who has been sacked four times per game this season and who seems to get up more gingerly with each crushing blow.
Griffin’s tenure with the Redskins can be divided into two segments: all that came before Jan. 6, 2013, and all that has come since.
On that day, atop the chopped-up turf of FedEx Field, Griffin played through a sprained right knee — originally suffered three weeks earlier — as the Redskins faced the Seattle Seahawks in an NFC wild-card playoff game. With his physical condition deteriorating throughout the afternoon, Griffin remained in the game until his right knee finally buckled beneath him in the fourth quarter and he crumpled to the ground, his lateral collateral ligament torn.
To that point, Griffin could do almost no wrong. He had produced what was arguably the greatest regular season by a rookie quarterback in NFL history and almost single-handedly restored the franchise to national prominence.
But from that point forward, it seemed, he could do nothing right.
As before, it was always about much more than football with Griffin — only now, instead of the hopes and dreams of a fan base, what was being projected upon him was all negative. He was seen as being too concerned with his brand, as when a new commercial for Adidas aired during his subsequent knee rehabilitation pronouncing him “All in for Week 1” — no matter the medical prognosis — or when he clashed with Shanahan over his physical readiness.
Griffin played a singularly large role in the demise of his public stature, of course. He often said too much or said the wrong things. He could appear thin-skinned and narcissistic, too invested in his own image, too intent on being well liked. And in the end, perhaps Griffin — at least this physically reduced version of him — simply wasn’t good enough to survive, let alone win, in a brutal and unforgiving league. His last start-to-finish NFL win came more than a year ago: Nov. 3, 2013, against San Diego.
But for whatever reason, Griffin also seemed to be constantly misguided, mismanaged, mislabeled or mishandled by others — the coaches and doctors who left him in the Seattle game until his knee snapped, the owner who cultivated a public friendship with Griffin at the expense of the latter’s locker room standing, the ESPN commentator who implied Griffin wasn’t “black enough,” the agents and marketing consultants who put Griffin’s “brand” ahead of his football interests.
Griffin’s advocates would say he was never properly developed into the drop-back passer he always hoped to become. Shanahan’s offense, which borrowed elements from the one Griffin ran at Baylor, utilized Griffin’s speed to great effect but made little investment in his future. Gruden, meanwhile, has apparently decided he needed just four full games’ worth of action to determine Griffin was not a quarterback he could build around.
“We tried everything that [played to] his strengths,” Gruden said. “We tried to cater to his strengths [and] tried to make the offense comfortable for him. . . . For whatever reason, when he’s started here with me, he hasn’t been very productive.”
The hiring of Gruden in January was widely viewed as a fresh start for Griffin, particularly after the Redskins’ front office signed wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who had been cast off by Philadelphia, giving Griffin another target for the deep throws he was capable of heaving downfield.
But Griffin failed to throw a touchdown pass in the preseason and then dislocated his left ankle on a freak play in Week 2, costing him six weeks’ worth of games. With nothing to focus on other than his recovery, Griffin proved incapable of staying in the background in the weeks that followed.
Gruden was among those gob-smacked when Griffin, still weeks from being cleared to compete, trotted onto FedEx Field for warmups before the Oct. 6 “Monday Night Football” game against the Super Bowl champion Seahawks in a muscle-defining workout shirt and Redskins shorts, a pink towel tucked at the waistband, and staged a passing demonstration for the TV cameras.
When Griffin was medically cleared to reenter the fray, for the Nov. 2 game at Minnesota, he got his starting job back despite the fact McCoy had just led the team to back-to-back wins, including a Monday night showcase at Dallas. The Redskins have not won since, with Gruden growing increasingly impatient and worried about losing the confidence of his locker room.
Gruden told both Griffin and McCoy of his decision in separate, face-to-face meetings Tuesday afternoon.
“He wasn’t happy about it,” Gruden said Wednesday of Griffin.
Though Gruden had hoped to keep his decision private until he could inform the full team Wednesday, it was confirmed in the media by 11 p.m. Tuesday. And when the sun rose Wednesday, one of the more electrifying figures in the history of Washington sports, a player whose rare speed and athleticism promised to transform the position of NFL quarterback, was reduced to an understudy.
Redskins officials scrapped Griffin’s 11:30 a.m. news conference Wednesday, scheduled when he was the presumptive starter.
Griffin offered no public comment after practice Wednesday but dressed at his locker stall, strapped on his backpack and trudged out, sharing a slight smile with familiar faces, as Redskins spokesman Tony Wyllie followed close behind.
That the Redskins would pull the plug so quickly on Griffin speaks to the immediacy of professional football, where careers are short and the notion of rebuilding is a foreign one. For Redskins owner Daniel Snyder and President and General Manager Bruce Allen, Washington’s blowout loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Nov. 16 was a watershed moment, Redskins officials say.
After speaking with people who studied tape of Griffin’s two-interception, six-sack performance, even Snyder and Allen, Griffin’s biggest supporters at Redskins Park, concluded change would be necessary unless Griffin showed immediate improvement. Following Sunday’s loss to the San Francisco 49ers, in which Griffin continued to appear lost, Snyder and Allen supported Gruden’s decision to bench Griffin.
In that last game, Griffin threw for just 106 yards, was sacked five times and showed almost no awareness in the pocket. On his final play, a third and eight from the Washington 10-yard line, down by four points with under a minute left, Griffin wanted to do something heroic, but he was blind-sided and lost the ball, essentially ending the game when the 49ers recovered.
Griffin was 24 years 284 days old that day — younger than all but four of the other 29 quarterbacks who started for their respective teams in the NFL’s Week 12. Barring an injury to McCoy or a stunning reversal from Gruden, that play will endure as Griffin’s final act in a Redskins uniform, a fitting end to a remarkable saga.
On Thanksgiving Day 2012, Griffin led the Redskins to a nationally televised 38-31 victory over the rival Cowboys — the second in a string of seven straight victories that propelled the Redskins to their first division title in 13 years.
That night, he and his family had Thanksgiving dinner with Snyder and his family at the team hotel. By the following Monday, his No. 10 Redskins jersey was the best-selling of any player in the NFL.
Two Thanksgivings later, Griffin appears finished in Washington, and all the lofty ideals he was supposed to embody look like so many crushed dreams.