Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 10, 2016

From A Loud Beginning To A Quiet Ending

To think it all began with such promise and such hype. Unrealistic levels of both really; even if it had all worked out for the best, Robert Griffin III was probably never capable of singlehandedly remaking Washington’s NFL franchise as awestruck fans and pundits predicted he would when he became the second pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Yet one can’t really blame those who got caught up in the hysteria of the time. After all, Washington gladly gave St. Louis three first round picks and their second round pick in that year’s draft to move up from sixth position into the Cardinals’ spot at number two. If a team was willing to trade away so much of its future, surely it must be getting something truly magical in the present.

Through much of that first season the magic of a new era in professional football did indeed seem to be on display. That September RG3 became the first NFL starting quarterback to have been born in the 1990s. In his first game he passed for 320 yards and ran for 42 more as Washington pulled away from New Orleans, winning 42-30. Those numbers earned Griffin that season’s first Offensive Player of the Week award. Never before had a rookie quarterback been so honored for his debut performance.

Washington’s new hero would win that weekly prize again later in the year, and was named Rookie of the Week several times. In November he threw for four scores against the Eagles and became the youngest player to achieve a perfect passer rating of 158.3 in a game; a record only just broken this past season by Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota.

Yet even as his team rolled to its first winning record in five seasons and captured the NFC East crown, Griffin’s brilliance was proving to be that of a meteor lighting up the night rather than the lasting glow of the daytime sun. He left one game with a mild concussion, then late in the season limped off the field after having his right knee twisted on a hit by Baltimore defensive end Haloti Ngata. RG3 sat out the next game as a precaution, but returned for the final two games of the regular season, wins over division rivals Philadelphia and Dallas. But the knee injury reasserted itself in the Wild Card contest against Seattle. Washington took an early lead, but the Seahawks rallied. As the game moved into its final quarter it was plain for all to see that Griffin was increasingly hobbled. But head coach Mike Shanahan left his star in until RG3 fumbled a snap and went down with a season-ending injury one play after being pounded to the turf on a sack by Bruce Irvin.

Knee injuries are common in football, and plenty of players have recovered from surgeries and returned to play at a high level. But in Griffin’s case there is little doubt that the surgery to repair both his ACL and LCL, performed just three days after the loss to Seattle, marked an ending. Not of a career certainly, but of an ability to reshape the game through a combination of speed and daring, an ability to keep defenses off-balance because passing or running were equal options for the quarterback.

Washington sunk to 3-13 the following year, as Griffin had clearly lost both speed and maneuverability. As his performance suffered fans and teammates were reminded, not in a good way, that their quarterback was still a very young man. Griffin displayed immaturity rather than leadership, as he failed to take responsibility for losses and relied on his close relationship with owner Dan Snyder to protect him. That certainly worked for a time; at season’s end it was Shanahan and not Griffin who was sent packing. But the owner couldn’t fire the whole team, and RG3’s attitude of entitlement had poisoned the Washington locker room.

He was revisited by injuries the next season, in which he started just seven games with only two resulting in victories. During the subsequent offseason head coach Jay Gruden implied there would be an open competition for the starting quarterback job before reversing himself and naming Griffin the starter. The team also exercised its 2016 option on his contract, a decision that could have potentially cost them $16 million. Under the complex rules of NFL contracts, Washington had the ability to get out from under the option by releasing Griffin prior to the start of the league’s 2016 “year” but only if he made it through the 2015 regular season without injury.

Then the onetime hope for the future was hurt during a preseason game, opening the door for backup Kirk Cousins to take over as signal-caller. As Cousins grew into the role, Gruden put his full support behind the former fourth round draft pick. Mindful of Griffin’s contract situation, the team relegated him to third on the depth chart. The quarterback who just a few years earlier was going to change Washington’s fortunes forever, the new era player worth four high draft picks, spent his final season in Washington on the inactive list.

The promise and the hype are but memories now, receding into the distance albeit still sources of pain. This week RG3 was released and is now free to sign with any team. But in the first few days of the free agency signing period, the quarterback making headlines was Brock Osweiler, who found more than 70 million reasons to move from Denver to Houston. Lesser names like backups Chase Daniel, Matt Cassel and Matt Schaub have inked deals with new teams. The market for Griffin has been, to use the polite phrase, slow to develop.

Though certainly there will be a market, and RG3 will be wearing a new uniform come the start of the 2016 NFL season, most likely as a backup quarterback. Today’s NFL revolves almost entirely around the man calling signals, even though the Broncos just won the Super Bowl largely because of their defense and despite their quarterback. So some owner or general manager or head coach or combination of those in some city will remember Griffin’s first season, when he lit up the firmament, and imagine it happening again. But when the deal is announced fans in that city shouldn’t get too excited. As their compatriots in Washington learned to their sorrow, the secret to magic is that it’s all just an illusion.

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