Mike Shanahan unmistakably considers it part of his job to mature Robert Griffin III . But good luck explaining to the kid that he’s not yet fully formed. Trouble is, youth in the case of RGIII isn’t a state of being so much as an uncontained cellular explosion. He’s mutantly buff and deaf to the word “no,” and trying to restrain him is like trying to put a leash on Wolverine.
Griffin’s knee is almost healed, and that’s promising, but a new dilemma is emerging for the Redskins: How do you tell this guy anything? How do you tell a quarterback who was rookie of the year and played the position better than just about anyone has ever seen that he still needs to listen and watch? How do you tell a kid with such a peacock-bright personality to turn it down? How do you tell a guy with an atomic body, accordioned into those acrylic red warmups, that he’s breakable and fallible and doesn’t know yet what he doesn’t know?
Griffin’s gifts are a perfect storm. But you know what? It’s hard to hear in a storm. “This is the interesting part for me,” Shanahan says. “I’ve had hard-headed players my whole career. It’s part of what makes them great.”
The coach-quarterback relationship in the NFL is always one of the more fraught sideline dynamics: The older guy with headphones, looking like a human mainframe computer, issuing a stream of commands to the younger man who’s supposed to put them in motion but who has a tendency toward insubordination. Sometimes it’s a dictatorship, and other times it’s a cooperative, and both think they know better than the other. In the case of the Redskins, the relationship is only going to get more fascinating because of the levels of distortion around Griffin.
Griffin is just now learning the reverberation when he speaks. One silly, contradictory remark about being unhappy sitting on the sideline while his knee heals — didn’t he tell us last spring that the preseason is irrelevant? — provoked a deluge of analysis with no fewer than 16, count them, 16 talking heads on ESPN parsing his words and their implications about his relationship with Shanahan. Griffin was undoubtedly just role playing, acting the part of the young warrior king anxious to be on the field with his men. But there is a reason, kid, that Peyton Manning so carefully avoids saying anything worth repeating.
What this episode suggested is that Griffin is not as totally in command of himself as he seems. Appearances are deceiving with him: He has so much gleam and polish that he seems more finished than he really is. The concern is that all that polish deceives Griffin, too, and he thinks he’s more complete than he is.
We can look for clues as to how Shanahan will try to manage Griffin by examining his relationship with the last quarterback he had with this much wattage, John Elway.
Shanahan said: “Me and John used to have knock-down, drag-out fights all the time. . . . You want that strong mind-set.” Both acknowledged that they had major differences of opinion over some of Shanahan’s calls, but after hours of hashing it out together in film rooms they usually reached an understanding that led to collaboration. “It’s a really great relationship because you spend so much time together,” Shanahan says. “You go over everything. You’re with each other like 16 hours a day.”
Elway was unavailable for comment this past week, but he told The Washington Post in an interview two years ago: “Mike and I butted heads every once in a while, but we were always able to solve it. I think that’s part of the deal, especially with quarterbacks. . . . They feel like they know the right way sometimes, and they’re gonna butt heads. But we were always able to get through it.”
There is one major difference between Elway and Griffin, however: Elway was a veteran who had lost in three Super Bowls. He came to Shanahan with a base of realism, long experience in the NFL and also a sense of profound disappointment. His body was failing him — he had no anterior cruciate ligament in one knee — and critics questioned whether he was a true winner. Asked to reflect on what made Elway great, Shanahan’s answer might surprise you. He didn’t say accuracy, work ethic, mobility, intelligence or vision.
“A part of experience is how to deal with setbacks,” Shanahan says. “One of the best attributes Elway ever had was his perseverance. People told him for 14 years he couldn’t win a Super Bowl, but his drive enabled him to win in Years 15 and 16. All he heard for 14 years was that he didn’t have the touch. There were so many different things people would say. ‘You can’t win the big game.’ He never, never gave up and was always the leader of the team despite adversity. With that drive and perseverance he was able to win back-to-back Super Bowls. To me, what I admired the most was that he would never, ever give in. He was just relentless. Anytime you have that willpower, to never give up, that separates people.”
Griffin may have the same quality — the swiftness of his recovery from two knee injuries is, granted, promising. But the fact is, at this stage Griffin only thinks he has faced NFL-level adversity. He doesn’t know where his weaknesses are yet or how teams will take advantage of them. Opposing coaches spent the entire offseason poring over the option attack and will counter it this season. He doesn’t know the variations upon variations that teams will throw at him or how much more there is to master in an NFL playbook, which the Shanahans did a good job of tailoring for his bilateral talents last season.
Above all, he doesn’t really know how hard the game can be or what can happen if you don’t give it enough respect and even fear. He has no idea what it can do even to the all-time greats, how average they can look if they aren’t completely healthy and reactive. He has no idea how it will wear on his body over time. If you want to see what RGIII will look like at 60, find Earl Campbell. You want to see him at 30, find Clinton Portis, once the adored star, now a man with a lawsuit and memory problems. He has no idea how quickly acts of prowess can turn into acts of desperation.
“One season doesn’t define you,” Shanahan says. “This is a very, very tough game.”
Griffin will continue to learn — or not, at his peril. “I just think what you do is try to get better every day,” Shanahan says. “Control what you can control. The only way to control the future is to take care of the present. Make sure you’re prepared, and you have to trust us. Hopefully there won’t be any setbacks. But if there are, well, life is dealing with setbacks.”
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.