The Forever Comeback

The impossible career of Robert Griffin III, once again, is in danger of being over—because this quarterback is always running toward danger. But RG3 and the Browns tell B/R Mag that he'll return, once again, no doubt about it


September 28, 2016

Bleacher Report

CLEVELAND — Late in the fourth quarter of Cleveland’s Week 1 game at Philadelphia, the Browns were losing 22-10 with a small chance at a comeback. It was 3rd-and-14 deep in their own territory when the play broke down, and Robert Griffin III ran. 

The first 10 yards went well, but then, striding into the 11th yard at great speed, Griffin crashed into rookie cornerback Jalen Mills.

It was a violent collision, the kind that leaves a person feeling as though little pieces of them have been knocked loose.

He felt the pain in his left shoulder right away, but he thought it was just a stinger.

On the next play, 4th-and-3, Griffin threw an incomplete pass, then winced and doubled over, his left arm dangling. Well, he thought, maybe it’s a really, really bad stinger.

After the game, he was still in pain, but even then, he says, “I thought…I’d be sore for a week, and go out the next week and be ready to roll.”

As everyone knows now, the next day an MRI showed a fractured bone in his left shoulder. Griffin went on injured reserve. Reports have him out for 10-12 weeks.

Robert Griffin III of the Cleveland Browns watches the action from the sideline during a preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons on August 18, 2016 at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. (Getty Images)

He’s probably done for the season, maybe his career, or at least that’s what people say. The football world basically held a wake for Griffin that week. There was also noise about some people in the Browns organization being glad he got hurt, saying they’d be better without him.

That’s not what he says, of course. “Nobody on the team has given up,” Griffin told B/R Mag between Weeks 2 and 3. “I haven’t given up on the team. Coach hasn’t given up on the team. And we just have faith that we’re going to figure it out.”

Thing is, his team agrees—they haven’t given up on him, either.

“If he does have a chance to come back this year,” Browns cornerback Joe Haden says, “it’s still going to be good.”

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Three days before that Week 1 game and the injury, Griffin was dancing. It was a hot day, so hot schools were closing early, but Griffin didn’t care, because he felt good. His mind felt good. His legs felt good. His reconstructed right knee felt good. He was 26 years old, in his fourth year in the NFL and the starting quarterback of an NFL team again for the first time in two years, and that felt good.

Orange cleats, black leggings, white sleeve on his left arm, white glove on his left hand, Browns helmet on his head, going through warm-ups, Griffin felt good, so he danced.

Elbows at his hips, fingers snapping, hip popping, head bobbing, it was a kind of dumb-looking little dance. But that was the point, because it made Corey Coleman, the nervous rookie wide receiver in line beside him, laugh.

As guys made their way through the warm-up lines, Griffin gave out easy low-fives and nodded his head to the music. “We got a game this week!” he hollered at one point.

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Robert Griffin III (left) and fellow QB Josh McCown confer during a Browns minicamp in June. (AP Images)

When practice began, he looked…well, not as good as he’d looked yesterday. Yesterday, he was light on his feet, wrist snapping, passes quick and accurate, right on the numbers. He slid in the pocket smoothly as he worked through blitz-reading drills.

Today, though, his throws were all just a little off, and he was shaking his head at himself a lot. When he made a bad pass, he tapped his chest, pointed at the receiver, made it known he should have done better. Then he did the drill again until he got it right.

When he needed correcting, head coach Hue Jackson corrected him, telling him his footwork should be like this, not like that; his release should be here, not there. Griffin nodded and said, “Yes, sir.”

And along the way, Griffin low-fived often with backup quarterback Josh McCown and gave rookie third-stringer Cody Kessler encouraging slaps on the shoulder pads.

A few hours later, showered and fed and out of uniform, Griffin took a quiet moment outside the team’s practice facility. Wearing all black, from shoes to sweats to hoodie to hat, his man bun poofing out the back, he sat at a small black table on a small patio between the building and the field. “I feel great,” he said. “And it’s been a blessing—to tear your ACL twice, and still feel, you know, faster than you were before, is incredible. Not many guys who tear the ACL that many times can feel the way that I do right now.’’

He felt great, too, because two days earlier, his teammates had voted him their team captain, and he felt faster and stronger now than he ever had.

Haden, a two-time All-Pro, says: “He was doing a really good job. I felt sooo baaad for him because of all the work he put in. We just loved the dude, man. He was doing everything he had to do to win the team over—and he did it. It was his time.”

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We just loved the dude, man.

It’s been a roundabout journey back to that kind of love—which, as much as anything, is what Griffin has wanted in the NFL. He openly said as much before Washington drafted him No. 2 overall in 2012. “I’m looking forward to making somebody fall in love with me,” Dave Sheinin quotes him as saying in RG3: The Promise.

In his rookie season with Washington, he beat out fellow rookie and No. 1 pick Andrew Luck for Offensive Rookie of the Year. He led the NFL in jersey sales. Chants of “R-G-3” boomed through FedExField like explosions. “Everybody loved him,” says Mike Shanahan, his coach that year. “He was doing things that nobody else could do.”

Griffin played like the perfect quarterback: quick on his feet, hard to catch when he ran and laser-powerful and accurate when he threw. His stats were phenomenal—3,200 passing yards, 815 rushing yards, 20 passing touchdowns to five interceptions (a rookie record), a 102.4 passer rating (another rookie record). “Nobody’s ever been able to accomplish that,” Shanahan says.

Beyond stats, he resurrected the team. Washington had been wallowing, its record 3-6 in the middle of another languid season, when Griffin spearheaded a 7-0 win streak that helped Washington win its first NFC East championship since 1999.

That was all so much fulfillment, or at least a step on the way to fulfillment, of a prophecy. And fulfilling this prophecy may be the one thing Griffin pursues as much as love.

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When little Robert Griffin III was 10 years old, in front of God and Robert’s parents and everybody, his bishop laid hands on the boy and said that he was going to be a great man for the world, a tool of God’s, “shot like an arrow from a quiver,” the bishop said.

The bishop later said this was a prophecy, a feeling, the likes of which a bishop gets once or twice in his lifetime.

That’s not all, the bishop said: Just because he received the prophecy did not mean it would come true. Little Robert must accept the responsibility of that greatness. He must work. He must chase it, and see it to fruition.

That has a way of giving a child a certain kind of push. It is with that on his shoulders that Griffin grew up, and he has been chasing that greatness ever since. He says, “God has blessed me with talents and abilities that I need to use.”

He carries that prophecy like a mission. He carried it through high school and then college, for some time as a track star, but most famously and sensationally as a football star. For most of his life, he was able to simply outrun everyone else who might stop him, opening up his receivers and the field for his rocket of an arm.

But then, in the NFL, he found that many of the people chasing him have bodies and strength and abilities that are godlike in comparison to most mere mortals. They could obstruct him on his chase of the prophecy that he’d been told, and he just keeps crashing into them.

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Robert Griffin III looks on prior to a game against the Philadelphia Eagles on December 26, 2015 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. (Getty Images)

Although he had to grow in a number of ways, Griffin was outstanding his rookie year in large part because he was an incomparable threat by land and by air, one feeding the other.

But he had a fatal flaw, an ironic weakness the likes of which seem written for a tragic superhero: He can move and throw and play quarterback like few others, but he could not give up on a play—he could not simply slide, or run out of bounds, or throw the ball away—to avoid a big hit.

So in Washington, Griffin kept getting himself hurt.

Two concussions. Multiple knee injuries. The worst and final injury of Griffin’s rookie season occurred in the playoffs in Washington against Seattle. He’d sprained his LCL a few weeks earlier, then hurt the knee again early in the game but convinced Shanahan to let him keep playing. Then, in the fourth quarter, when Griffin was lined up in shotgun, trying to field a bad snap, his knee simply gave out and folded sideways beneath his body. It was grotesque.

One thing about injuries: The physical pain is bad, and so is the obvious emotional pain of not getting to play, but there’s also the collateral guilt. Griffin thinks a great deal about how his injuries hurt his team and his family. “Man,” he says, “every time I’m going out there, and something doesn’t go right as far as getting injured, you feel like you’re letting them down and you’re hurting them.”

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When that knee collapsed, it’s like everything else started falling down around him. Griffin ended up with a torn ACL, torn LCL and torn meniscus, and had a complete knee reconstruction. He didn’t play a down in the 2013 preseason, and that year, Washington won just three games. Griffin struggled—and things only got worse from there. There was discord among the ranks—namely, disagreement between Griffin and the coaches and Washington owner Dan Snyder about whether Griffin should be a pocket passer or a running quarterback.

It’s impossible to sort out because coaches say one thing, higher-ups in Washington another—“Everything is false and untrue,” per spokesman Tony Wyllie—while others have said Griffin got really insecure about backup quarterback Kirk Cousins and wanted to be known as the dropback passer Cousins was, which he also felt would keep him more out of harm’s way.

Griffin has yet another explanation, saying, “I didn’t get it in my mind that I needed to be a pocket passer. I was told and preached to that I needed to do that. And it’s something that you just have to accept—coaching—and I accepted the coaching. I never got the thought, like, Hey, my legs need to disappear. It was just more so, 'Hey, this is what we want you to do.' And I said, ‘Yes sir.’”

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Whatever the truth was, after months of public feuding, Shanahan benched Griffin in December 2013—to protect his health, he said—and then Snyder fired Shanahan three weeks later.

Things only became worse for Griffin under Shanahan’s replacement, Jay Gruden, as the RG3 Pocket Passer Experiment continued not working. Griffin missed most of the 2014 season with a dislocated ankle, and then Gruden benched him for all of 2015 in favor of Cousins. At one point, Griffin was even relegated to scout-team safety.

Washington cut Griffin loose in March 2016. By then, whatever love Griffin felt in Washington was long gone. He’d become the subject of that vicious public criticism unique to star athletes, perhaps none harsher than that of former teammate and tight end Chris Cooley, who ranted on the radio that Griffin’s teammates didn’t like him, that he wasn’t a team guy and that the offensive line hated blocking for him because he kept making them look bad.

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Browns head coach Hue Jackson and Robert Griffin III talk during a preseason game against Tampa Bay. (AP Images)

A couple of weeks after Washington released Griffin, Jackson, the new Browns head coach, hosted him for a private workout. Jackson was blown away by Griffin’s accuracy in passing drills—“freakish” was the word he used—and said that, on a rollout at a full sprint, Griffin made a throw that made Jackson feel “like the earth moved beneath my feet.”

Choosing Griffin was an enormous decision for Jackson—he had built himself a reputation as the quarterback whisperer, coaching Joe Flacco to a Rookie of the Year season in Baltimore and helping mold Andy Dalton into a breakout star in Cincinnati.

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Griffin signed a two-year, $15 million deal, and he and Jackson began working. Hard. This wasn’t a relationship that started by each telling the other how awesome he was. “I think in any relationship, starting out, everything’s gonna always be great,” Jackson says. “And I didn’t want it to be that way, to be very honest with you. I attacked him from day one until today. Every way you can think of. From his footwork to where he puts his eyes to how he holds the ball to how he does this and does that. I’m sure he’d be the first one to tell you he’s probably tired of hearing me in his head.”

And yes, Griffin says Jackson and associate head coach Pep Hamilton have been “extremely tough”—but no, he’s not tired of it. “Coach is just always on me,” he says. “About whatever it is—checks, making the right throws, mindset on a certain play. And it keeps me on my s--t. ... But it’s made me a better player, and I feel like I’ll be playing some of the best football I’ve ever played in my career because of my relationship with them, and their ability to coach me and get the best out of me.”

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His injured left arm in a sling, Robert Griffin III and head coach Hue Jackson watch a practice at the Browns training facility in Berea, Ohio. (Getty Images)

As for all the criticism, Jackson says, “I get surprised by things that get said about him outside our building, because I never knew any of that. … All I know is the Robert I deal with each and every day.”

And now, Jackson adds, “We have a tremendous relationship. I approach Robert in a way like he would be my son.”

When they got the news that Griffin’s injury was so much worse than they first thought, that was a hard moment. “It was tough,” Griffin says. And it grew tougher still when McCown was ruled out after suffering a shoulder injury of his own in Week 2. “It just sucks to see so many guys going down when we put so much work in to change the culture, and to go out and win games for this city. And you know, for our coach. So much work, personally, I’ve put in, and I know, and the team knows, how much work he’s put in helping us.”

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The way he talks about football, it’s clear Griffin has a passion for the game and the challenge of playing it well: “I always tell everybody, football is a beautiful game, because if you can get 11 guys to do the right thing at the same time, it’s like poetry in motion. And that’s why the game is so hard. It’s hard to get 11 guys to do it all right, all on one play. But that’s the beauty of the game.”

Once Griffin was officially a Brown, before camp began, he went to work on that poetry. He called guys to work out and hang out if he was near their home, even if he’d never met them, such as rookie wide receiver Jordan Payton when he was in California. He arranged bowling outings over the course of the past few months with Haden—and he was shockingly decent, putting spin on the ball and everything, and bowling a 180 one night.

But mostly he just put in the work, usually arriving at the Browns facility in Berea by 6 a.m. and rarely leaving before 9 p.m. “I’m not an idiot,” Griffin says. “I understand what was said about me in the past. Whether it was true or not, I understand what was said, and I understand the reality of it is that that was the perception. I didn’t want to come in and try to fight the perception, and try to be any extra than who I am.”

Perception is one thing, truth is another—and perception, Griffin knows, is formed not by words but by actions. “I can tell if you’re BS’ing me or not,” Griffin says. “All those guys in the locker room can tell if you’re BS'ing them or not. And I didn’t want to be that guy.”

And, he added, “The BS Meter of a football player, or an athlete in general, is through the roof.”

Hamilton, the associate head coach, says Griffin has “impressed me a ton” by being a “tireless worker” and a “gym rat” who’s “here all the time.”

“He’s actually bothering me quite a bit in the coaches’ wing of the building,” Hamilton says with a grin.

As far as that whole offensive-linemen-hate-him thing, perennial All-Pro offensive lineman Joe Thomas says, “I really enjoy blocking for him. I haven’t seen any concerns or issues.”

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Griffin getting hurt was the most Browns thing ever. When he went down, the general reaction wasn’t shock or pity or even sadness. “You’re kinda like, of course,” says Thom Fladung, 56, a longtime Browns fan. “Well of course it’s gonna turn out this way.”

Fladung is like many Cleveland fans. He grew up in northeastern Ohio, “football heaven,” when the Browns were one of the best teams in the league. The Cowboys before the Cowboys. “America’s team,” Fladung says. “And that’s why it’s so hard for people of my age to watch this.”

But now, after years of struggle, the entertainment for Browns fans is less about hoping they win and more about waiting to see in what creative ways they will screw up this week. “That’s afflicted us for so long,” Fladung says. “Just these incredibly twisted ways to break their fans’ hearts.”

"I’m not an idiot. I understand what was said about me in the past."


Not helping the matter is the almost oppressive plainness of the Browns, once a source of pride, but now just another representation of the situation: their blah uniforms, blank helmets, even, with all respect to Jim Brown, their name. The Browns.

All of this was beautiful when they were good. Fladung says, “They played in that really crummy stadium there on the lake, and they were the Browns, and they had the most boring uniforms—but they just beat the hell out of you. It was really a kind of blue-collar point of pride. Now? In the modern NFL? It’s just boring.”

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You can’t help but notice the juxtaposition between Washington and Cleveland. In Washington, Griffin was a flashy rookie who maybe thought too much about his image in a city full of people obsessed with their image, playing for a team with a racist nickname, which the team owner refuses to acknowledge. Los Angeles might be the only place more obsessed with image than the political world of D.C. And Griffin seemed to belong in such a world, filling his social media accounts with all sorts of carefully selected selfies, inspirational quotes and such.

And now, there’s Cleveland, the blue-collar land full of blue-collar people, underdogs the lot of them. Griffin has hit the brakes on social media, and his teammates say the only person they see getting to the Berea facilities earlier than Griffin, or leaving later, is Coach Jackson.  

Cleveland is a place you go to work.

In many ways, Griffin could have been—could be—a perfect addition to that blue-collar boringness. He is an underdog chasing redemption, and he can be fun as heck to watch when he is playing well. “It would have been cool to have a guy with a little flash,” Fladung says. “This whole Robert Griffin comeback story, that was going to be the storyline of the season. For him to get hurt that early is just too damn bad. And I mean, the town would have loved him.”

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Maybe he can still have that love, still have everything he’s ever wanted, still chase down that prophecy—but he may well only get one more run at it. “In this league,” Jackson says, “you don’t get another chance like this one.”  

Already, worrisome patterns take shape.

Some of the same things are already being said in Cleveland that were said at the end of his run in Washington. “Some people” in the Cleveland building are saying Griffin’s injury is a good thing; “some people” in Washington said his dislocated ankle in 2014 was “a blessing in disguise.”

Beyond that, Jackson unknowingly says many of the same things about Griffin that Shanahan and Gruden, his former coaches in Washington, have said before. All three coaches, at various points, have publicly declared their love for Griffin’s smarts and his work ethic. They have all said he’s going to have growing pains, and that there are two main things he needs to do to be successful: one, just play; two, stop getting hit so much.

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Robert Griffin III is slow to get up after taking a hit in the Browns' season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. (AP Images)

Even before he got hurt, Griffin’s play in Philadelphia a few weeks ago was average at best. Some blame goes to the receivers, who dropped several passes—but he didn’t help himself by overthrowing a couple of open guys, one in the end zone. His numbers were average at best—190 yards, no touchdowns and an interception, and he rushed for 37 yards.

Griffin made some good plays and had a couple of good runs, and Jackson was mixing in trick plays. They looked to be using Griffin the way Shanahan says Griffin needs to play—he needs to remember what made him so special, and do what he does best. He got hurt with Washington, Shanahan says, not because he was getting out of the pocket or because of dangerous designed runs. If anything, his ability to run gave him a better chance of staying healthy—but he had to give himself up.

But with the Browns, Griffin said he felt like he was seeing the field better than ever and feeling more comfortable by the minute. Better still, he felt like he was moving fast and well, his reconstructed right knee feeling strong.

It would be easy for Griffin to go into something of a shell now, to withdraw and sulk for a bit. But instead, Griffin has, for instance, been joining walkthroughs, arm in a sling and all. “Right back behind the huddle with Coach Hue…every play,” Haden says. “The whole practice, he’s involved. Super involved. Making sure he doesn’t miss out on anything.”

"In this league, you don’t get another chance like this one."


And it’s not just that, but also Griffin’s demeanor while working. Upbeat. Energetic. Positive. Surprising, almost. “It’s super impressive,” Haden says.

Now, despite the injury, despite the 10-12 weeks of recovery time, the Browns expect him to return, and when he does, they expect him to still be their captain. “No doubt about it,” says cornerback Tramon Williams, a guy who knows winners, having won a Super Bowl with Aaron Rodgers during his eight years in Green Bay. “No doubt about it.”

Meanwhile, however, Griffin keeps working. He’s been helping third-string rookie Cody Kessler, breaking down film. And when, for instance, McCown was taking a beating against Baltimore, Griffin went to Kessler. He pointed to his face and said to him, “You’re ready for this. You can do this.”

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Nobody around him will say this on the record, but plenty did off: Griffin’s response to his injury didn’t exactly demonstrate the accountability that has won his teammates over. He gave a long, rambling, defensive explanation, about how he was trying to run out of bounds, and he didn’t see the guy he hit because he’d been blocked out of bounds, and then he got pushed in the back. “Not everybody wants to look at that,’’ he said. “They want the sexy story. They want to say I’m not protecting myself.”

As far as the unavoidable chatter about Griffin being too fragile, “It’s just the NFL now, man,” Haden says. “I’ve been in the league for seven years, and it happens so often. It’s a 100 percent chance you’re gonna get hurt. Eventually, something’s gonna happen.”

Griffin admits that his continuing to play quarterback in the NFL these days walks the fine line between sane and insane. But then, that’s exactly why he plays.

“It’s the challenge of being able to master the art of performing,” he says. “And master that fear that some would get when you have those guys coming after you. And it’s the guys who have no fear, and are willing to continue to walk that fine line of what some people might call crazy, and still be able to perform and play the game. … It’s a challenge, but that’s why we play the game. Everyone’s bigger and faster and stronger than they’ve ever been. Systems are more complex. Defenses are getting more complex. And it’s just the art of figuring out the solution to the equation. I think that’s why we play.”

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Whatever Griffin saw or didn’t see on that fateful play in Week 1, and whatever he says happened—whatever the push that he felt might have been—plenty of people who know him and know the game say the same thing: He could have avoided the hit, and the push, and so much pain, if only he had given himself up sooner.

That might be true. But Griffin doesn’t worry about all that. He focuses on things like helping his teammates every way he can, and the words his mom said to him after they found out how bad his injury really was: “You’re gonna be all right. God works in mysterious ways. And God has a plan. And when you come back, you’re going to be bigger and better and tear it up, just like you always do.”

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Robert Griffin III walks off the field after the Browns' loss to the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field in Phladelphia. (Getty Images)

As important as anything Griffin and Jackson have worked on has been that simple fact of sliding, of throwing the ball away, of getting out of bounds, of protecting himself. Giving up.

That day, three days before the injury, sitting there in all black under that oddly hot Cleveland sun, Griffin said, “I am an extreme competitor. And I don’t want to give up on things. But because I know that, and I have truly, 100 percent accepted that, I am able to protect myself now. And I feel like Coach didn’t have to tell me but once. ‘I need you to protect yourself.’ He told me that way back before I signed here. And I’ve done that. … And I’m going to carry that on the rest of my career, because I know how important it is to be available for the next play. It’s kind of like they say, admittance is the key. The first step to recovery is to admit you have a problem. And I admitted I had a problem with being so competitive, and now I know how to protect myself.”

That same day, Jackson said, “He’s been outstanding. I mean, you gotta know when to say uncle. There’s a time to make the uncommon play, and there’s a time to say, 'OK, they got me.' You gotta live for the next down, per se. If you do something wrong in the National Football League, you could be standing next to me the next down, which doesn’t help our football team. … It’s about the team.”

So, discussing the injury two weeks later, before Week 3, knowing perception is one thing and the truth another, Griffin faced the obvious question, the question he asked himself as he watched the play “a bunch of times”: What happened? Was he right or wrong? What should he have done differently?

His truth: “I was getting out of bounds,” he said, “trying to stop the clock—to give us more time.”

Right or wrong, mistake or not, he was thinking about his team.

Brandon Sneed is a contributing writer for B/R Mag, and the author of Head In The Game: The Mental Engineering of the World's Elite Athletes (Dey Street, March 2017). His writing has also appeared in Outside, ESPN The Magazine, SB Nation Longform, and more, and has received mention in The Best American Sports Writing. His website is Follow him on Twitter: @brandonsneed.

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