Robert Griffin III had two teams vying for him ahead of the the 2012 NFL draft. St. Louis held the No. 2 pick (Andrew Luck was a lock to the Colts with the first selection), and both of these teams were backing up bounty-filled vans to the Rams’ offices, hoping to trade for the right to take RG3. One team was Washington, and the other was Cleveland.
If I told you that in four years since being drafted, Griffin had flashed signs of brilliance, suffered a debilitating knee injury, trudged through two mediocre seasons and then been demoted in favor of a guy who entered last season with more picks than TDs, relegating to a season in which he didn’t take a snap, you’d have every reason to assume that he had been drafted by the second team. After all, unfulfilled promises, subpar play, mishandling at the hands of coaches, crippling injuries and extended stints on clipboard duty are something of a specialty among Cleveland quarterbacks, the main ingredients in the garbage stew the team has been serving up at First Energy Stadium for years.
But Griffin, of course, ended up in Washington. Both teams offered three first-rounders for the Rams’ pick, but Washington kicked in a second-round selection, which swung the balance in its favor. The Browns, desperate to make a big deal, then sent three picks to the Vikings to move up from fourth overall to third to take Trent Richardson. A year later the Alabama back was shipped off to the Colts for a first-round pick that ultimately became Johnny Manziel.
Now, Johnny Football is out and Griffin is in, bringing things full circle. Or maybe proving that time is, as Matthew McConaughey would have us believe, a flat circle. The Browns have been down this road before. Many times. Potential franchise quarterbacks—or at least big-name ones—have cycled through town at a head-spinning rate. Since returning to the league in 1999, Cleveland has taken four QBs in the first round, including two since missing out on Griffin in 2012.
So should Browns fans—and I’m afraid I fall into that unfortunate category—be excited? (That assumes we’re capable of being excited about anything, but just play along, OK?) Griffin’s arrival this week came at a much more reasonable price than he commanded four years ago. Instead of a raft of high draft picks, he’ll cost the Browns $6.75 million in guaranteed money. It’s hard not to get behind the decision to roll the dice and sign him. If there’s one thing the athletic Griffin will always have, even after his knee problems, is upside—more than Josh McCown, anyway. One gets the sense that even though Griffin hasn’t taken a snap in 15 months, he could still walk into a hostile situation right now and offer up at least the promise of a dazzling play.
The problem is that even if Griffin is fully healthy (he said he was and then cryptically suggested he might write a book on the subject of his health), he’s timed his arrival in Cleveland to coincide with the beginning of yet another rebuilding period. It’s never a good sign—at least for short-term prospects—when your new head of football operations finds himself answering questions about whether or not he’s systematically ridding a 3–13 team of anyone over 30. (“Not at all,” Sashi Brown said the other day. “It’s not a scorched-earth policy or a policy just making decisions on a guy’s age.” There’s an encouraging name for your system: Not Scorched Earth.)
The best quote from Griffin as he met his new hometown press came in response to a question about his knowledge of the franchise. “I’ve done my homework and I’d like to think that I’m somewhat of a football historian,” he said, “but now is not the time for me to dive into that.”
It’s a fantastic line, one that loosely translates to, “I don’t live in a cave, you know, so I’m fully aware that calling this place a dumpster fire does a disservice to dumpster fires. But it’s not like I’ve got options, so I’d rather not think about all that now, O.K.?”
Griffin often took a beating behind his offensive line in Washington, and things don’t figure to get any better in Cleveland. Last year, the Browns conceded 53 sacks, tied for second-most in the league. And that was before center Alex Mack and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz left in free agency. (I still don’t understand how a line with a Hall of Famer at left tackle plus Mack, considered one of the best centers in the game, and Schwartz, who was a searing hot commodity in the offseason, could be as bad as it was. But, hey—Cleveland!)
Between fits of self-destructive behavior, Manziel showed signs of promise last year. But using his performance to project how Griffin might fare is dicey. For one thing, Griffin’s mobility is much more of a question mark than Manziel’s. For another, there’s a whole new coaching regime in place. That might be the one to give fans hope, though. New coach Hue Jackson has a well-deserved reputation for quarterback whispering. If anyone is going to get Griffin—who is still only 26—to a better place, the smart money is on Jackson.
Then there’s the Josh Gordon connection. The Browns maintain they aren’t banking on anything from the receiver whose suspension could be lifted this season, but it’s hard to ignore the success he and Griffin enjoyed at Baylor. After Griffin signed, Gordon tweeted:
Still, it’s hard to see a scenario in which Griffin’s signing pays immediate dividends. (Outside of the fact that it gives Cleveland more flexibility in the draft, where trading down from number two suddenly looks like an appealing idea.) Asking any QB to turn this mess around is just too much.
But I’ve been wrong before. I was probably the last person on the Brandon Weeden bandwagon (also known as The World’s Smallest Bandwagon), and I find myself now wondering what I’m going to do with that Manziel jersey. I was wrong about them, and I could be wrong about RG3, too. It’s entirely possible that he will spur a remarkable turnaround.
And even if he doesn’t, the Browns still have first crack at a QB in the draft. What could possibly go wrong?