Boldly named the starting QB—the 25th in Cleveland since the franchise’s 1999 rebirth—onetime Washington savior Robert Griffin III is relearning how to dare to be great
BEREA, Ohio—The day Robert Griffin III was officially named the starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, his mind drifted back to a moment on the practice field about three months earlier.
It happened during organized team activities, in the portion of practice when the quarterbacks were throwing routes on air to their receivers. It’s an ordinary drill, but coach Hue Jackson was really harping on Griffin to fix some aspect of his technique. “Don’t be afraid to be great!” Jackson barked.
“Everyone says that, but in that moment it hit me, and I knew exactly what he was talking about,” Griffin says. “Sometimes you are fine with being good. It was a good play. I made a good throw. But it wasn’t a great throw. It wasn’t the great read, It wasn’t the great check I could have made. For some reason, on that day, at that particular moment, it hit me, and it opened up a whole new way of thinking for myself. It all clicked. You have moments in your life where it is an enlightening moment, and that was it.”
Whatever it took to get through to Griffin, the Browns are happy to hear it. They took a chance in March by signing the 2012 No. 2 overall pick-turned-Washington castoff, and they liked him enough that they traded away their own No. 2 pick in this year’s draft and didn’t select a quarterback until the end of Round 3. On Monday they picked Griffin to lead the offense into the first year of Jackson’s tenure. He was back out on the practice field later that afternoon in his familiar No. 10 and full-length leggings, running plays, with Jackson constantly in his ear.
The Browns aren’t crowning Griffin the long-term answer at the position. Bear in mind that he’ll be the 25th player to start at quarterback for the franchise since 1999. But as the Browns hit the reset button yet again, Griffin represents what the team is trying to do in the first year of the rebuilding process. When they hired Jackson in January, Sashi Brown, the executive VP of football operations, was realistic about where the team was. “Hey, we’re 3-13,” he recalls telling Jackson, “so you are not walking into a roster that is ready for the playoffs necessarily.”
In order to build with both the short- and long-term in mind, the Browns were going to have to fit together some misfit pieces. Like Terrelle Pryor, the Ohio State quarterback-turned-receiver who had bounced on and off the rosters of four NFL teams. Or Josh Gordon, the NFL’s 2013 receiving leader who missed most of the 2014 season and all of the 2015 season for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. And, of course, Griffin.
“Hue is a master at making individual guys feel good,” Brown says. “Keeping expectations high, but making sure they understand we are committed to them also. It’s not like the first mistake you make, we’re going to yank you out and move on from you.”
That was Jackson’s starting point with Griffin. When the Browns held a private workout with Griffin in March, they were sufficiently reassured that he could still throw the ball and sprint the way he did as the 2012 Rookie of the Year. But after his humbling fall from grace in Washington, what they really needed to work on was the mental side. Jackson knew the only remedy for Griffin to be able to play confidently on the field again was to make football plays with his teammates. He gave the 26-year-old all the first-team reps in training camp, thus giving him every opportunity to win the starting job. After he won it, Jackson made sure to assert publicly that the team was going to “stick by” its decision.
“I thought what he needed moreso than anything from me is for me to believe in him. Believe that I know he can do it,” Jackson says. “There is no thought in my mind that, OK, you can’t do this but you can do that. I know there have been a lot of things said, but I don’t think there’s anything that Robert can’t do.”
Things began unraveling in Washington when, after running an offense as a rookie that pulled from his college playbook at Baylor, Griffin wanted to make the jump to becoming a pocket passer in Year 2. Then-head coach Mike Shanahan, and his successor Jay Gruden, didn’t see Griffin the same way as he saw himself. That led to Shanahan’s firing and then Griffin’s spending the entire 2015 season as a gameday inactive. Based on what the Browns have shown in practice, their offense with Griffin at the helm will be a blend of a lot of different concepts. Take this three-play stretch in Monday’s practice: A designed run for Griffin; a pitch to running back Duke Johnson, Jr.; a dropback pass.
Some branded the Browns as crazy for not standing pat at No. 2 and taking a quarterback in this year’s draft, and instead proceeding with Griffin. But their approach fits into their big-picture plan: Build through the draft by stockpiling 14 picks, and trust the head coach to make the most out of the players they have.
“All those guys are risks, right?” Brown says. “So if we take [Jared] Goff at 1 or 2, or [Carson] Wentz at 1 or 2, or any of the other QBs, they are all a gamble. All these guys, in a sense, are a gamble. Realistically, all these guys have a degree to which they can fail. Robert certainly has that, too. That’s part of the culture that I talked about earlier, which is, we don’t want guys feeling they have to come out here and be perfect. We understand Robert is going to develop over the course of months.”
For now, there’s some irony to Griffin standing as the starting QB of the Browns, four years after Washington leapfrogged to one spot ahead of Cleveland in the draft to nab the quarterback. “God’s got a weird way of making things happen,” Griffin says, “so this is just meant to be.”
Five Things I Thought About The Browns
1. There’s a totally new practice intensity under Jackson. Even after visiting eight other training camps before this one, it stood out to me. Players run from one field to the next when they’re switching practice periods, and a few times during team drills I saw defenders pursue a ball-carrier 40 or 50 yards downfield to try to punch the ball out. Jackson was hoarse after practice from shouting instructions. “Today was nothing,” he said with a shrug. “We had an off day yesterday, so I was taking it easy.”
2. The Browns would be smart to hang on to Josh McCown. Jackson talks a lot about “creating the right environment” for Griffin to succeed, and McCown is an important part of that. He’s smart, team-first and was as much of a steadying force as anyone could possibly be through the Johnny Manziel storm. Last week McCown said he’d spoken to the team about Dallas’s reported interest in trading for him after losing backup Kellen Moore, but it’s been quiet since. He’ll be the ideal backup for Griffin.
3. Pretty impressive that Terrelle Pryor is in line to be an opening-day starter. He’s is listed as a starting wideout on the Browns’ first unofficial depth chart released in advance of the preseason opener. Mary Kay Cabot, Browns beat writer for Cleveland.com, wrote over the weekend how Jackson convinced Pryor to switch positions to receiver and saved his NFL career.
4. Josh Gordon looks out of shape. Jackson confirmed as much, saying that Gordon, who was conditionally reinstated by the NFL but is on the physically unable to perform list, “will be the first to tell you” that he needs to lose weight. As he’s trying to transition back to the field, he’s been watching practice in shorts and a T-shirt while holding the practice script to follow along on the sidelines.
5. This could be the end in Cleveland for former first-round pick Barkevious Mingo. The first indication came in the spring when the team did not pick up the fifth-year option of the 2013 No. 6 overall pick. The outside linebacker added weight this offseason to be more physical, addressing a long-running issue for him, but he has been working with the back-ups in practice.
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