BOCA RATON, Fla. — Quarterback is always the issue in Cleveland, and that seemingly never changes. But the new plot twist this year is whether the Browns will spend their lofty No. 2 draft pick on a collegiate passer like Jared Goff or Carson Wentz, or perhaps make a deal with a former No. 2 overall pick who’s seeking a second chance in the NFL, in Robert Griffin III.
In the most intriguing scenario—and perhaps the most likely—twos will be truly wild in Cleveland this spring, and the Browns will opt for making both moves, picking their future franchise quarterback while taking a flyer on the former franchise quarterback who bottomed out in Washington. With the draft a little more than five weeks away, all possibilities seem to still be in play in Cleveland, with the Browns busy turning over every stone at the game’s most pivotal position, even if that should lead to the selection of a quarterback in the second round, at No. 32.
“We all know and recognize we’re trying to find a quarterback,” new Browns coach Hue Jackson said Tuesday morning at the AFC coaches media breakfast on Day 2 of the NFL’s annual meeting at the Boca Raton Resort. “It’s a big decision. This is not something you just say, ‘Okay, give me that one.’ It’s not like that. We have to get this right.”
Getting the quarterback decision right are words that have been often spoken but never executed in Cleveland, of course. Since re-entering the league in 1999, the Browns have been where quarterback careers go to die, with an astounding 24 different passers starting at least one game in that 17-season span of futility.
But with Johnny Manziel finally released and only the soon-to-be 37-year-old Josh McCown on hand, here we are again at that familiar crossroads with Cleveland, as the franchise tries again to find a quarterback worthy of a long-term relationship. And to my way of thinking, with the Browns sitting in the No. 2 slot, that means that this year’s quarterback drama starts with Cleveland, barring the still unlikely event that someone trades up to No. 1 Tennessee for a passer.
There’s still plenty of time to dissect Cleveland’s draft preferences at the position, but after listening to Jackson for a full hour on Tuesday, I’m convinced the Browns coach would like to get his hands on Griffin no matter what direction the team eventually heads with their picks at No. 2 and 32. Jackson was peppered with questions about Griffin’s two-day free-agent visit to Cleveland last week, and spent roughly 30 minutes discussing how much he learned about RG3.
“I think we all know he’s a talented player. He’s a good person, a good young man, and the guy can throw a football, he can run a football,” Jackson said. “This past year he didn’t play. But I think he learned a lot. I think he humbled himself a little bit. He knows that he’s got a lot of work to do ahead of him to get himself back to where he was, but I think he’s willing to do the work. He’s trying to find a football team that’s going to best fit him, and we’ll see how that unfolds.”
Griffin, who was released on March 7 by Washington, has visited only the Jets and Browns. But he’s no doubt watching the quarterback situations in San Francisco and Denver, watching what develops with Colin Kaepernick’s status and whomever the Broncos might choose to pair with recently acquired veteran Mark Sanchez. The Browns made no contract offer to Griffin at the close of their visit, but it’s telling that Jackson mentioned Griffin’s desire to pursue his “best fit,” perhaps indicating that the quarterback’s top choices are elsewhere besides Cleveland.
But clearly Jackson is intrigued, and the Browns definitely are the team showing the most interest in Griffin. While Jackson said Cleveland is in no rush and still in the due diligence stage on the quarterback front, it’s apparent that he did a fairly deep dive on the former Baylor University Heisman winner, trying to get to the bottom of what went wrong in Washington, and how Griffin reacted to that failure.
“The guy was [offensive] rookie of the year, he was a No. 2 draft pick, the second player [selected],” Jackson said. “So you feel good about that. You want to see if he’s humble, if he’s grown from his experience. I think he’s in a great place right now. I think he wants to play. I think he understands he’s talented enough to play, but I think he knows there are some things he needs to fix, and I think he’s willing to do that. I think he knows there are some things he could have done better, and I think he wants to take on whatever challenge lies ahead, however it unfolds.”
Griffin, Jackson said, owned up to his role in his precipitous descent in Washington, both in his on-field struggles and his reputation for not being the most popular of teammates or most coachable of players. Without divulging details, Jackson said he found Griffin to be humbled by a 2015 season that saw him lose his starting job to Kirk Cousins and sink to the role of the team’s No. 3, scout-team quarterback.
“Absolutely, you have to be [humble], you have to have a side to you that says, ‘It’s not them, it’s part me, too,’” Jackson said. “That goes a long way with me. I don’t know what a lot of other people want. Because until that happens, can you start to rebuild if you still think it’s about them? You’re kind of walking with that gook on you. That doesn’t come off as fast.”
By not deflecting all blame on his Washington coaches or teammates, Griffin quickly earned Jackson’s trust, and possibly the best possible starting opportunity he’ll be presented with in this phase of career rehabilitation. Unless San Francisco trades Kaepernick—and the Browns no longer seem interested in dealing for him—there doesn’t seem to be a more viable landing spot for Griffin than Cleveland.
“I heard the truth [from Griffin],” Jackson said. “I mean, he takes responsibility. He knows there are things he could have done better. And that’s where he’s is, and to me that showed humbleness. Because that’s what it’s all about. In this league, you don’t grow if you don’t admit you made some mistakes.”
Jackson said he sees “some areas where I can help [Griffin]” regain his 2012 form, when he took the league by storm as a dual-threat quarterback, helping lead Washington to a surprising NFC East title. But more importantly, Jackson seemed intent on doing an autopsy of sorts on Griffin’s final three seasons in D.C., when injuries and ineffectiveness combined to eventually relegate him to virtual obscurity.
“Our visit was very informative, with lot of dialogue back and forth,” Jackson said. “A lot of tough questions asked, a lot of tough questions answered. I don’t baby people. Sorry, it’s just not who I am. I ask the tough questions and I expect to get some tough answers, and he handled all that extremely well. At the same time nothing’s decided or anything. But I felt better about him because he answered some questions that I had, and I thought he represented himself the right way.”
I’m not sure how the rest of the Browns restructured front office feels about Griffin, but Jackson sounds sold on him and his viability as a short-term bridge-quarterback option, allowing Cleveland to draft Goff or Wentz and then ease him into the lineup in 2017 or beyond. My gut tells me the arrow is pointing toward Goff in Cleveland at the moment, but that perception could change depending on how the Browns view Wentz’s pro day showing on Thursday in North Dakota, and as they continue their research on him.
It sounds like the Browns’ research on Griffin is complete. In 2013 Jackson worked on the same Bengals assistant coaching staff as Washington coach Jay Gruden, and while he values Gruden’s opinion on Griffin, it was just a piece of the puzzle.
“It’s good to have a relationship with Jay, but at the same time we are going to trust in what we know, what we feel, what we find,’’ Jackson said. “Because sometimes those things are different. He was, and is, a tremendous player, but sometimes things just don’t work out.
“Sometimes until you can get your hands on a person and talk to them, and see what was going through their minds—Why did things maybe not work out?—do you really know. So I trust all the information given to me about him, but at the same time, we’re going to trust our instincts and my gut and what I think is best as we go through that process.”
That process isn’t complete, but if Griffin wants to be in Cleveland, Jackson and the Browns sound like they’re preparing to welcome him, and help him revive his career. With the clear understanding, Jackson said, that Griffin could be competing for the starting job with a highly-drafted rookie quarterback this season.
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“If it did [happen], he would have to compete and I don’t ever worry about that,” Jackson said. “The cream always rises to the top, and if a guy is afraid of competition, then you have the wrong guy anyway.”
These are the Browns after all—they’ve mastered the art of getting the wrong guy at quarterback. But if Jackson and the Browns do their homework this spring and choose wisely, both in free agency and the draft, could the end of Cleveland’s nightmare at quarterback finally be at hand?