Silent this season after being demoted to the bench, Robert Griffin III left Washington a farewell message without saying a thing. It was a strange ending befitting the odd tenure for the ex-franchise QB in D.C.
LANDOVER, Md. — Washington’s third-string quarterback, Robert Griffin III, dapped each of the outstretched hands and smiling faces that greeted him on his way out of FedEx Field for the last time. A dreadlocked security guard in a green jacket whom Griffin had greeted a dozen times over the years pulled him close. “It’s been a blast,” Griffin told him. Said the guard: “Keep the faith. In my eyes, it’s still your team.” Griffin only smiled.
Of course, it’s not. Hasn’t been for some time. Shrewd observers might note the end of the RG3 era as the afternoon of Dec. 9, 2012, the day Griffin barreled into Ravens defensive lineman Haloti Ngata and hyper-extended his knee, a prelude to an agonizing evening at FedEx a month later when Griffin finished the job on his ACL in a playoff loss to Seattle.
The more literal fan may point to the beginning of this season, when Jay Gruden, benefiting from the buffering effect of a real, live general manager in Scot McCloughan (whom some in the organization credit with neutralizing an owner long smitten with Griffin), announced one-time backup Kirk Cousins as the starter.
But that’s ancient history now. Griffin will be released soon by the team that drafted him No. 2 overall in 2012 and enjoyed his breathtaking Rookie of the Year campaign that fall and winter. So at the conclusion of his second NFL playoff game on Sunday night—one a healthy Griffin watched in street clothes—he made a point of shaking the hands of each of the yellow-jacketed security guards who line the perimeter of the home bench, then he jogged off to the locker room and later declined comment on the way to his ride.
“It’s not the right time,” he said.
What could Griffin have said about his four years in the NFL, standing in the tunnel between the field and the players’ parking lot, that could possibly have summed up this journey with any adequacy? At his best Griffin wasn’t just successful; he was iconic. To watch him in 2012 was to witness the haphazard brilliance of 2004 Michael Vick channeled into a system that one dreamed could actually sustain life in the NFL for every high school quarterback who rushed for 1,000 yards and was promptly converted to wide receiver.
The read-option and its variants were freezing the likes of DeMarcus Ware and Jason Pierre-Paul in their tracks. Onlookers leapt at the notion that this could be the beginning of something, and Griffin was leading the revolution. Said Saints quarterback Drew Brees in September 2012: "It's only a matter of time before he takes this league by storm.”
Three years later Griffin spent a season on the bench, under guard from reporters during open locker-room sessions by a member of the team’s media relations staff who cut off scribes seeking only to exchange small talk with the one-time media darling. “No interviews,” he warned. Griffin was, for six months, the best-protected third-string quarterback in football.
The right time to make a statement, as it happens, came the day after Sunday. As teammates cleared out their lockers, Griffin packed his things into cardboard boxes, leaving behind a single note printed on paper featuring the team logo, hanging from the top shelf that for years housed his Incredible Hulk action figure. It was a poem often misattributed to Mother Teresa (the actual author was Kent M. Keith, a college student who penned a pamphlet on student council leadership in 1968).
RG3 cleared out his locker today, save for this note. pic.twitter.com/rjcKheHHSN— Robert Klemko (@RobertKlemko) January 11, 2016
He went quietly before Monday, but his actions spoke volumes. By all accounts, he worked his ass off. Griffin spent 30 to 40 minutes after typical practices in 2015 working on drops and throws with second-year equipment assistant Pat Coleman. Then he conditioned as he always had.
“He was a constant professional and didn’t become a distraction,” said sixth-year defensive lineman Chris Baker. “It’s gotta be hard for a guy of his stature to go from being the guy to a bench player, but he handled it with class.”
Griffin continued to do the little things he always did: slapping hands with every player during pregame stretches, conducting a pregame routine that included a brief moment of reflection at the midfield logo. Of course, quarterback meetings with Cousins and QB coach Matt Cavanaugh were awkward, says backup Colt McCoy, “but it’s the NFL, so you’ve got to get over that.
“When that all went down at the beginning of the season, naming Kirk the starter, it was pretty unexpected,” McCoy continues. “And Robert didn’t say things he probably could’ve said. I think there’s a lot of luck involved in this business. A lot of things have to fall in the right place at the right time, and it just didn’t for him.”
It’s fair to wonder today what Griffin’s early career might have looked like in a different place, where he might not have been asked to start on Day 1 for a football team that finished 5-11 the year before. It’s been well-documented that the outgoing Mike Shanahan regime was encouraged by his near-maniacal work ethic but put off by Griffin’s approach to film study; might he have absorbed a different mindset as a backup that first year? Griffin never did learn to slide at the appropriate moment; might he have avoided injury with more time to acclimate to the speed of the pro game?
“You always will wonder what Robert would have been if he could have sat and learned,” says Nick Sundberg, Washington’s longtime long snapper. “You look at Aaron Rodgers, sitting behind Brett Favre. You get time for the body to develop, time to get used to the speed. Do I think things would’ve been a little different if he had time to sit? You have to.”
Instead, success and celebrity came fast and frantic, and both Griffin and the organization led by team owner Dan Snyder made some decisions that appear unwise now. After his rush back to the field after the Ngata hit, and the subsequent re-injury, there was that cryptic Spring 2013 text to ESPN’s Trey Wingo that hinted at discontent within the organization: “i know where my responsibility is within the dilemma that led to me having surgery to repair my knee and all parties involved know their responsibilities as well.” And then Griffin was ‘All In for Week 1,’ a sprint-to-the-finish recovery from knee surgery paired with an Adidas marketing campaign that rubbed more than a few teammates the wrong way, and might have compromised the recovery process, too. And then there was Griffin’s logo, unveiled after the injury-riddled 2013 season—a 3-13 finish—during which Griffin quietly campaigned for reporters to share his sleek new personal stamp with their social media followers.
A year later, Griffin’s marketing team had moved on. Cousins, curiously drafted three rounds after Griffin in 2012, was named the starter and finished the 2015 season as the player of the month in the NFC.
But before that, when Cousins was laboring through a rough patch of the schedule and Washington was losing to teams that would make the playoffs, Griffin was quietly defending Cousins, and winning the hearts of those who shared one final night with him in Landover. After one loss, Griffin was walking to his car when a fan started screaming “F--- Kirk!” According to local photographer Dexter Powell, who was nearby, Griffin walked over to the fan and said, “No, no, no. It’s about the team. Not the individual.” Powell was one of the people Griffin embraced on Sunday night.
“I think sometimes you have to fall to realize you have more work to do in here,” Powell said, pointing to his chest.
Cousins’ season ended with a 29-for-46, one-touchdown performance in a 35-18 loss, which shone light on Washington’s glaring defensive deficiencies but offered a glimpse into an optimistic future. The press box in Washington, half empty in Week 7 when the team stood at 2-5, had a line out the door Sunday evening for halftime offerings of Ben’s Chili Bowl.
And even after the blowout, there was some pep in McCloughan's step as he walked away from FedEx. In just one year he had moved on from the injury-prone enigma known as RG3, who only a year ago made one last impassioned plea in a team meeting after regaining his starting job for the last time: "I'm going to give this 100%," Griffin said, according to several players in the room. "I just need you to have my back."
He would start five of the final nine games, throwing four touchdowns and six interceptions.
Then, after a season of near-silence, Griffin left behind only that poem.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.
Was it passive-aggressive? Probably. Clichéd? Sure. Diffusive of blame? You could make the argument. But it was undoubtedly Robert.
He remains affable, quirky and smart. Says Sundberg: “Robert's the type of guy that you can introduce him to your mom once and he remembers her name.”
But was he particularly close with anybody?
Says wide receiver Rashad Ross: “I’m not sure that he was.”
In the end, teammates took little notice of the hanging note as they passed around souvenir footballs for autographs to commemorate the 2015 season. Meanwhile, Griffin’s message went viral online, engendering a panoply of positive and negative reactions among fans.
Shown a picture of the poem, Sundberg's eyes got big.
“Whew,” he said. “Interesting.”
That it was—all four years of it.