It’s put up time for RG3
After sliding from franchise quarterback to sideline fascination, the Browns’ QB is ready for a new start
He hasn’t lost his touch on deep balls. Distance, arc, accuracy – Robert Griffin III can throw downfield all day. During the preseason, that was pretty much all that was clear. Come Sunday, we’ll know whether the former superstar is capable of doing all the other football skills it’ll take to revive his career.
After a year stuck on the sidelines with a team that no longer wanted him, Griffin is back in the game with the Cleveland Browns. From the day he signed with them in March, the Browns all but handed Griffin the starting job. New head coach Hue Jackson has staked his credibility on a player who failed under two previous coaching regimes, was run out of his former organization and has a bad reputation around the league. Just don’t bother Jackson with such details. He couldn’t care less. Jackson has been all in on Griffin since they first shook hands. Jackson has set out to rebuild the 2012 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and is too deep into the process to back out now.
But if Griffin falls again, the Browns should brace themselves for blistering criticism, and rightfully so, for how they’ve addressed the NFL’s longest-running quarterback problem. Besides signing Griffin, who wasn’t in high demand after being released by the Washington Redskins, Cleveland also traded the second overall pick to the Philadelphia Eagles, who used it to select Carson Wentz. The Browns will face the Eagles’ rookie starter when the teams kick off the season in Philadelphia on Sunday. For his part, Griffin hasn’t dealt with the pressure of playing in a meaningful NFL since week 17 of the 2014 season.
Griffin’s supporters, though, are hopeful he’s beginning a great new chapter. Jackson’s confidence in Griffin seems so genuine, it’s enough to make you wonder whether everyone else is missing something. Jackson has even inspired Griffin to think big again.
“Everything that I have been through personally … yeah, I’m extremely happy,” Griffin said. “Not satisfied, but happy with where I am.”
It’s second and five from the 50-yard line. Wide receiver Terrelle Pryor is split wide right in a four-receiver formation. Operating from the shotgun, Griffin drops back and unleashes a perfect pass down the right sideline. The ball hangs in the air as Pryor easily beats Atlanta cornerback Desmond Trufant on a go route, it drops into his arms at the 6-yard line and he glides in for the touchdown.
A week earlier against Green Bay, Griffin and Prior also combined for a 50-yard reception. In the third preseason game against Tampa Bay, Griffin connected with Pro Bowler Josh Gordon for a 43-yard score.
When Griffin was at his best in Washington, he was a big-play artist. Jackson believes the former Heisman Trophy winner can be that guy again. Ryan Clark does, too. Griffin’s former teammate in Washington, Clark wouldn’t be surprised if his friend finally bounces back after a once-unfathomable slide.
“It can work because of Hue. Hue has found a way to kind of let him do what he does well, and not ask other things of him,” said Clark, an ESPN analyst. “Robert can be successful playing for Cleveland as long as Hue understands how to manage that. And from what I’ve seen, Hue does. He’s the perfect coach for RG at this time.”
To gauge Griffin’s effectiveness during the preseason, Clark pointed to “explosive plays.” Griffin attempted only 38 passes – but five produced 215 yards and three touchdowns. “He was on point,” Clark said. “Whether it was Gordon or Terrelle Pryor, and against good coverage, he was able to make these good throws.
“That’s what you want to see out of him. If you’re trying to get him back to where he was, and you want to get him back, you have to feel good about starting with that.”
Definitely. Every coach craves big plays. The problem was, Griffin and the Browns weren’t consistent. The first-team offense struggled to score in an 0-4 preseason. Although Griffin occasionally hit it big, he was mostly average: The five long passes aside, Griffin completed 17 of 33 passes for 98 yards with no touchdowns and one interception. He had a 100.0 overall passer rating. Without the big plays, the number dropped to 45.1. The point is, Griffin and the Browns have to be much more productive in the intermediary passing game. That’s not Griffin’s strength. And there are other issues that could impede the offense’s development.
Gordon, who led the league in yards receiving in 2013, is suspended for the first four games. Without him, Cleveland will have the NFL’s least-experienced receiving corps: four rookies and Pryor, a converted quarterback who has two career receptions. Having an entire receiving corps on training wheels is not the way to help Griffin get into rhythm early in the season. Listen to Griffin talk about the group, however, and you hear Jackson’s optimistic tone.
“The young bucks, they are hungry,” Griffin said. “Their mindset is on telling their story, which is our story. When they get out there, they have a chip on their shoulder. They want to prove to everybody that upper management and the coaches all made the right decision.
“I look forward to working with these guys every single day. It is just fun to be able to mold a group of young guys, a lot of rookies and a lot of guys that don’t have a lot of playing experience in the NFL. That is part of the game. And I am excited about it.”
Whether Griffin is similarly excited about the Browns’ offensive line will be known Sunday. The Browns have concerns at center and right tackle. Philadelphia’s defensive front is considered the strength of its team. For Griffin and the Browns, this appears to be problematic.
“I could mention all 11 starters or any of the backups that they have. They are a tenacious defense,” Griffin said. “I could talk about them for days. Just being able to study them and playing against them for the past couple years in Washington, I know what they are going to bring to the table.”
Reviewing the Browns’ overall talent is a much shorter conversation. It appears there’s just not much there.
The concern in Warren Moon’s voice resonates through the phone. He wants to be optimistic about Griffin’s second chance. The Hall of Famer, who always reaches out to black quarterbacks who came after him, tried to help Griffin before he experienced his meltdown in Washington. Griffin ignored his counsel. Nevertheless, Moon continues to root for Griffin. He just wishes the Browns had more talent to prop him up.
“He’s with the right coach to help him. Hue will do everything he can for him. I believe that,” Moon said. “But I don’t know if he has enough around him to make him look good. There’s just not a lot of talent in Cleveland.
“I watched their preseason progress. They just didn’t seem to be able to score points. A quarterback has to have talent around him to be successful. And not just talent, but talented guys with experience. It’s really that simple.”
The Browns’ youth movement is in warp drive. On their opening 53-man roster, Cleveland has 28 players with two years or less experience. The group includes 17 rookies, 13 of whom are draft picks. After the Browns went 3-13 last season, sweeping change occurred again.
But the management carousel – the Browns have had three major front-office makeovers since 2013 – hasn’t resulted in team success: Cleveland has lost at least 11 games seven times in the past eight seasons. They’ve missed the playoffs the last 13 seasons. Hired in January, Jackson becomes the Browns’ eighth head coach since 2003. And Griffin is the Browns’ 25th starting signal-caller since 1999. During that time span, only one produced a winning record.
Of course, in the first year of a massive rebuild, a head coach can only do so much. Continuing to encourage Griffin, no matter what occurs around him, figures to be one of Jackson’s most important jobs. If Griffin this season proves to be a viable option at quarterback, the Browns will inch closer to ending their run as a national punchline.
All signal-callers need to have the support of their head coaches “because that makes you who you are as far as being a player,” Moon said. “You can have as much confidence as possible in yourself. But if you don’t have other people who believe in you, if your coach doesn’t believe in you, it’s definitely going to dampen your confidence.
“So if you have a coach who’s in your corner, that’s going to make your confidence grow. Robert hasn’t had that the last few years in Washington. His confidence has been down the last couple of years. Being with Hue has given him a shot of confidence. Now, he has a guy who does believe in him.”
No doubt about it: Jackson entered Griffin’s life at the right time, said Clark, Griffin’s teammate with Washington in 2014.
“If you know Robert, and you saw him when he was successful, you know he was at his best when he had confidence in himself, and the people who were coaching him and the team he was on also believed he could get the job done,” Clark said. “Look at what Cleveland did. They didn’t take a quarterback [high] in the draft. They didn’t bring in anyone to truly compete with him. And then before the preseason ever got rolling, they said, ‘You’re our guy.’ It shows what they think of him. It shows what Hue thinks of him. He can do well with that type of coach and that type of support.”
As his career fell apart, Griffin struggled to conceal his anger. During news conferences, Griffin often chaffed at criticism, much of which was directed at him for his conduct on social media. To many Redskins observers, Griffin seemed too self-absorbed and tone-deaf. Earlier this week, it was like old times again in Washington when Griffin was ripped in the media, this time for his behavior in his personal life.
In a radio interview Tuesday, Redskins Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green, who once told me he considered himself to be a mentor to the young passer, blasted Griffin for acting selfish and childish. Displeased that Griffin reportedly has been separated from his wife of three years for months and is in a very public relationship with his new girlfriend, Green castigated Griffin for “his moral stance, what he’s doing with his wife, his [kid]. … I mean, he’s jacked up, and that’s not good. I don’t appreciate that. When you have responsibilities – young people looking at you, [he] had this whole city in his hands – and when you do that, you’re responsible for more than yourself and that’s selfish and that’s childish, the way he’s operating.”
Informed of Green’s comments Wednesday at the Browns facility, Griffin appeared stung. “Whatever you say in the public sphere, you have to make sure you’re ready to say that in the private sphere as well,” Griffin said. “Darrell hadn’t approached me about anything. I considered him a friend, so that’s disappointing.”
You can debate the appropriateness of Green’s action. Griffin is a grown man; he doesn’t answer to Green. On the other hand, Griffin’s public displays of affection with his new lady while he’s still married (they were pictured kissing in front of a crowd at Browns practice) have made him a target. Besides Green’s comments, Griffin has been put on blast on social media. With Griffin struggling to get his career back on track, he doesn’t need more drama.
Unlike in Washington, though, Cleveland’s head coach is ride or die.
“Obviously, we have an expectation for Robert and of Robert. Robert understands that,” Jackson said. “Anything that we feel like is out-of-bounds, trust me, I will address with any player, not just Robert.
“There is a right way to do things and there is a wrong way to do things, and I know sometimes people make mistakes. We deal with everything accordingly. I don’t want to get into what Darrell is feeling. I’m going to take our judgment here within our organization with what we are doing when it comes to Robert.”
It’s clear that if you mess with Griffin, you’ll have to deal with Jackson. That’s exactly the protection a quarterback needs from a head coach, which is what Griffin has always wanted. How long it lasts is up to him.