As a rookie in 2012, a memorable year for the NFL, Robert Griffin III was unlike anything else in pro football. Adrian Peterson was a post-injury machine en route to winning an MVP, and J.J. Watt became the omnipotent destroyer we know him as now. For me, though, the electric images of Griffin during his first year in Washington are still the clearest moments of that season.
I remember where I was during his Week 1 romp in New Orleans. I remember the reaction of everyone in the room when he tore down the sideline for a 76-yard score against the Vikings in Week 6. I remember the silence as he writhed on the frozen ground at FedEx Field in the playoffs. Those images have stuck, and they make Griffin’s fate — at least as it would appear now — difficult to reconcile.
After suffering a shoulder injury during his first start with the Browns and landing on injured reserve, another season is over for Griffin before it had a chance to begin. Athletic marvels haunted by their failing bodies often have long-tailed careers. Both front offices and fans are quick to rationalize how this time it can be different. In getting to work with quarterback whisperer Hue Jackson, it seemed like a Griffin revival might be possible in Cleveland. But when second (and third) chances go awry, resignation starts to set in.
By almost any measure, Griffin had a rookie season for the ages. No first-year quarterback since the merger averaged more adjusted yards per attempt than Griffin’s 8.6. Other than Griffin, Dan Marino is the only other 20-touchdown passer with single-digit interceptions as a rookie. And that’s before even considering what Griffin added as a runner: 815 yards and seven touchdowns on just 120 carries. Despite suggestions that he was the product of a system, Griffin was rightfully named Offensive Rookie of the Year in a class that included Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson.
Washington sacrificed the franchise’s short-term future and then some by trading up to take Griffin second overall out of Baylor, and Mike and Kyle Shanahan constructed a perfect approach for their massive investment. In 2012, Washington’s offense was built on the sort of zone-read plays and play-action throws that turned Griffin into the most exciting player in college football. 39.9 percent of Washington’s throws that year came off play-action, comfortably the most in the league. That familiarity helped Griffin torch the league and propel his team to the playoffs, but in the years since, he’s too often been criticized for the route he took to his success rather than being championed for getting there at all.
Plenty of quarterbacks fail in favorable conditions, and for all the small schematic advantages Griffin had that season, Washington’s offense was far from the star-laden group it is now. Josh Morgan, who’s caught 30 passes since 2012, led the team in receptions. Then-33-year-old Santana Moss paced Washington in receiving touchdowns. Griffin turned this group into the fourth-highest-scoring team in football despite not having a single receiver with more than 633 yards.
As the zone-read has faded from the NFL in recent years, Griffin has been lumped in with Colin Kaepernick as byproducts of a schematic anomaly that allowed for flashes of success from players without the skills to thrive in more traditional offenses. But in the years since his rookie season, the real issue has been Griffin’s faltering body.
The rush to bring Griffin back from offseason ACL surgery in 2013 made him a shell of the player he was as a rookie, and he played only two games before a dislocated ankle cost him valuable time in 2014 during his first year in Jay Gruden’s offense. In nine games that season, Griffin averaged a respectable 7.9 yards per attempt and completed 68.7 percent of his passes while being sacked 33 times. Kaepernick has never showed off the touch and accuracy that Griffin did even as the latter dealt with a failing body and an offensive line that couldn’t keep him from getting snapped in half. Griffin struggled at times in Gruden’s offense, but half a season was hardly enough time for him to adapt.
Like other seemingly supernatural athletes turned human by injuries, Griffin’s hesitance was obvious whenever he returned. The parallels between him and Derrick Rose are almost depressingly consistent. At 22, both were brilliant-if-limited talents who thrived with a particular, extraordinary style. And in the years since, physical maladies and lack of confidence stemming from those maladies robbed them both of chances to become well-rounded versions of themselves.
At least with Rose, there was an MVP trophy and a five-year, $95 million, guaranteed contract. Griffin never got there — his two-year deal with Cleveland was a low-risk investment with only $6.75 million guaranteed — but his accomplishments as a 22-year-old quarterback were just as impressive as any from the youngest MVP in NBA history. Each accomplished more before his 23rd birthday than arguably any other player at their position had to date.
In each case — with Griffin’s inability to protect his body and Rose’s penchant for barreling toward the rim — a change in approach seemed necessary for survival, but even as Griffin took off as a runner less and Rose became content to live on the perimeter more, it seemed like their bodies still found new ways to wreck their futures. Some players simply weren’t built for the rigors and punishment of professional sports. Despite considerable gifts, they’re destined to live as record-book footnotes or names that stir something in people from that era. For Griffin, that end feels more wretched than for most.