An era that dawned with unbridled optimism came to an end Monday, as Robert Griffin III, the quarterback who appeared destined to restore the Washington Redskins’ championship tradition, was released by the team.
The move had been expected for months, assuming an air of inevitability after Griffin was demoted to the squad’s third quarterback in August and Kirk Cousins, elevated in his stead, solidified his hold on the starting job by leading the team to the 2015 NFC East championship.
The long-anticipated end of Griffin’s tenure with the Redskins was devoid of the fanfare and drama that marked his playing career, coming roughly two months after the quarterback had cleaned out his locker at Redskins Park, packing his jerseys, sneakers and collection of action figures in a cardboard box without comment. What was stunning was the simple fact that it had come to this — the one-time face of the franchise, “RGIII,” reduced to a one-line roster transaction after Redskins owner Daniel Snyder had invested so much to acquire him and the team’s ardent fan base had invested so much emotional capital cheering him on.
The move frees Griffin, 26, to sign with any team. He is expected to have several suitors who want to evaluate whether the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner, in a more supportive environment and an offense tailored to his strengths, can recapture the magic of 2012, in which he led the Redskins to the playoffs and was named the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is on record as a Griffin admirer. Other possible landing spots include Cleveland, Houston, Philadelphia, San Francisco and the New York Jets.
Given the marginal role to which Griffin had been assigned — running the scout team that mimics each week’s upcoming opponent during practice — cutting the quarterback before his salary was due to quadruple was a business imperative. Had Griffin remained on the roster after 4 p.m. on Wednesday, the start of the new NFL year, the Redskins would have owed him a $16.155 million salary for 2016 — an outlandish amount for a player who dressed for only one game in 2015 and didn’t take a snap all season.
Griffin departs with a résumé of NFL achievements that fell well short of his promise.
A brilliant athlete of rare ability when the Redskins sent three first-round picks and a second-round pick to St. Louis for the pick used to acquire him second overall in the 2012 NFL draft, he suffered three major injuries during his Redskins tenure. He never played a full 16-game season, starting 35 of 64 possible games; compiled a 14-21 record as a starter and was benched three times for subpar performance.
A man of deep religious faith, Griffin felt from the moment he joined the Redskins that he was meant to spur a culture change and restore greatness to a team that had forgotten how to win. He sported Superman socks the night he won the Heisman, already suited up for the heroic role. And he arrived in Washington amid unprecedented fanfare for a rookie and initially lived up to the billing.
A dazzling personality off the field, Griffin led the NFL in jersey sales. Each time the Redskins stepped onto the field, they were met by deafening chants of “RGIII! RGIII!” Equally dynamic on the field, he led Washington to a 10-6 record and the 2012 NFC East title, snapping a four-year playoff drought.
But Coach Mike Shanahan’s decision to keep him in a playoff game against Seattle, clearly hobbled after his right knee had buckled underneath him, made for a gruesome televised spectacle and produced a disastrous result for Griffin, who needed reconstructive surgery to repair shredded ligaments.
It was the second major knee injury of his career, and he was just 22.
By 2013, his second NFL season, it was clear Griffin, relatively small for an NFL quarterback, at 6 feet 2 and 222 pounds, with the spindly legs of a sprinter, wouldn’t have a long career with his high-risk style of play. Thus began the process of remaking him into a more traditional quarterback who primarily operated out of the pocket.
It never took.
Shanahan, who’d led Denver to Super Bowl championships in 1998 and 1999 , was fired four years into his five-year contract. And Jay Gruden, tapped as his successor, found that developing Griffin into a pocket passer was arduous work.
Griffin struggled to make the rapid-fire decisions necessary in Gruden’s timing-based offense. He seemed increasingly paralyzed when thrust into the live action of games. He absorbed too many hits from onrushing defenders, froze a split second too long while scanning for open receivers, unable to commit to a throw. Sometimes, he took off running into a linebacker’s path. The calamitous sequence didn’t happen on every play, but it was far too frequent. No quarterback in 2014 was sacked more often per pass attempt.
Progress was halted when he dislocated his left ankle in Week 2 of 2014 and missed six games.
Gruden aired his frustration midway through the 2014 season, issuing a withering public critique of Griffin’s mechanics and decision-making following a 27-7 home loss to Tampa Bay. “Not even close to good enough,” the coach said of Griffin’s play.
Meanwhile, Griffin’s public remarks, often presented without context, fanned controversy and irritated teammates. He could be slow to shoulder blame for the offense’s failings and to praise the teammates charged with protecting him, as respected NFL quarterbacks instinctively do.
For all his book smarts, Griffin failed to understand how some of his actions undermined his leadership. Among them: Releasing a video of his recovery from reconstructive knee surgery in 2013 built around the slogan, “All in for Week 1;” and staging a sideline passing demonstration for benefit of “Monday Night Football” TV cameras before kickoff of a 2014 game in which he was sidelined by injury.
After Washington won just seven games in 2013 and 2014 combined, Griffin’s standing around the league plummeted. Front office executives whispered that he no longer struck fear in opponents because the leg injuries had robbed him of his explosiveness. Others privately pointed to stubbornness and ego as the real impediments to progress.
But the culpability for Griffin’s unrealized potential in Washington was shared.
Snyder’s infatuation with his star player, according Griffin “favored-son” status, alienated the quarterback from his teammates and the coaching staff. Neither Shanahan nor Gruden was able to repurpose him as a drop-back passer. And a demanding fan base and hyper-critical press corps, on both the local and national level, inflated his prodigious ego and then nitpicked him apart.
Still, Snyder doubled down on his commitment to his star, believing that with a better offensive line, more time and specialized coaching, Griffin could reclaim his dazzling rookie form. It was an image Snyder refused to surrender, and he and team President Bruce Allen insisted that Gruden and his staff give Griffin every opportunity to succeed heading into spring workouts for the 2015 season.
They did just that. Gruden ceased public criticism, hired a quarterbacks coach to fine-tune his skills and shifted to a run-first offense with an eye toward easing pressure on the passer. Meanwhile, the team’s new general manager, Scot McCloughan, invested the team’s first-round draft pick on college football’s top offensive lineman and picked up the $16.155 million, fifth-year option on Griffin’s contract, widely interpreted as a public vote of confidence.
But Griffin made only nominal progress in training camp, struggled in limited preseason action and suffered a concussion while getting battered by Detroit’s pass rushers in an Aug. 20 preseason game. To that point in the game, he’d completed 2 of 5 throws. They were the last game-day throws he made with the Redskins.
Meanwhile, Cousins played well in relief.
Many believed the Redskins should cut Griffin the moment Gruden benched him in favor of Cousins, fearing he’d become a distraction. But with the front office insisting he remain on the roster, the team’s public relations staff adopted a policy of closely monitoring Griffin — and any journalists who tried to speak to him. Staffers stood like sentries, arms crossed, in front of Griffin’s locker when journalists were present to ward off potential questions and even small talk.
Griffin managed to remain cordial without speaking and did nothing that conveyed displeasure or frustration over his benching.
“He never said anything to the media, and it would’ve been well within his rights to say whatever he wanted to say,” said former NFL wide receiver Donte Stallworth, who forged a friendship with Griffin during the 2013 preseason. “But that showed a lot of growth. He basically made a business decision, and a decision for the team that he wasn’t going to say anything or cause any distractions.”
The silence represented only part of Griffin’s “business decision.” The other involved his approach to the season.
Shortly after his demotion, Stallworth and others reached out to Griffin and encouraged him to remain confident in himself and his abilities. They also suggested he devote his time to honing his fundamentals and treat each practice as if he were preparing to start the next game.
“As an athlete, especially a quarterback, you can’t afford to let a year go to waste,” Stallworth said. “As hard as it may be, you have to treat those practices like your games. You can’t lose that edge.
. . . “I told him, ‘It’s of utmost importance that you never lose confidence. You can’t do that, because that’s really damaging deep down if you do.’
“I don’t care who it is, if it’s LeBron James or Steph Curry, any athlete, if they aren’t confident, they’re not going to play well. So I told him, ‘Don’t let this shake your confidence. You’re still something special.’
“The kid had the best quarterback rating of any rookie in history. He did some amazing things.”
Griffin took the advice to heart.
After each practice, he stayed on the field at Redskins Park throwing to equipment manager Pat Coleman, working on taking snaps, dropping back or rolling out and making each throw in the playbook.
His pregame warmups consisted of a similar routine even though he wasn’t eligible to compete. He joined Cousins and backup Colt McCoy in throwing to receivers. Once his teammates retreated to the locker room to suit up in full uniform, Griffin would throw to Coleman for another 30 minutes, smacking his hands and pounding his chest when his passes were on target and trying again if they weren’t pinpoint.
He also cheered his teammates on and celebrated their success.
Dressed in a burgundy sweat suit, Griffin was a fixture on the field before kickoff. As his teammates stretched in neat rows, he walked up and down, stopping at each player for a high-five, slap on the back or pat on the head. After touchdowns, he’d sprint onto the field to join celebrations. During injury timeouts, he often jogged onto the field along with the team’s trainers to check on the ailing Redskins player.
“He’s been as good a teammate as you could ask for,” fullback Darrel Young said. “He could’ve let this all tick him off and cause him to go into his shell. But he’s been the same Robert.”
Despite Griffin’s upbeat outward manner, there were moments of tension in the quarterback room, particularly early in the season.
“It was one of the most unusual rooms I’ve ever been a part of,” McCoy said.
Cousins, the third-stringer for much of training camp and the preseason, was suddenly the starter, with the offense tailored to him. McCoy was admittedly a bit sore after the starting job he’d wrested from Cousins and Griffin late in the 2014 season was handed back to Griffin in February and then awarded to Cousins in August. And Griffin felt slighted by the decision to bench him after he’d suffered a concussion in the second preseason game despite the long-standing NFL practice of not stripping starters’ jobs because of injury.
All three quarterbacks found it difficult to focus, at times, amid their shifting fortunes. But newly hired quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh managed to forge cohesion.
“Matt Cavanaugh was probably the MVP of the season,” McCoy said as the season drew to a close. “The way he got us to come together, eased tensions and instilled professionalism under difficult circumstances was pretty impressive.”
After a 2-4 start, the Redskins finished 9-7 to clinch the NFC East without Griffin taking a snap, throwing a pass, gaining a yard or barely uttering a public word.
He now enters the NFL free agent market, where opinion is divided on his future.
At 26, can he still conjure the magic of his rookie season? Or, after so much pounding, has the NFL already seen the best of Robert Griffin III, whose résumé in Washington consists of 40 touchdown passes, 23 interceptions, eight rushing touchdowns and a 63.9 percent completion rate?
Heading into the 2015 season, Griffin vowed to “talk small and play big,” seemingly confident that his best was still to come.
“I can tell you this: As long as I’m here in D.C., I’m never going to be okay with mediocrity or losing,” Griffin said in an April interview. “And until they tell me I’ve gotta go, I’m going to be all in for this city.”
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