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.
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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