The NFL career of Robert Griffin III is on life support, and the next two weeks will be a prolonged pulling of the the plug. In what feels a ritual sacrifice, Griffin is being set up to fail in Cleveland’s final two games, when he’ll be faced with the impossible task of erasing the memory of an injury-filled season bookended with mediocre, slow-motion play. Cleveland will almost certainly part ways with Griffin in the offseason, saying they tried everything they could — remember when they gave him those final two games to save himself? — but with a slew of draft choices will be in the market for their next ex-QB come April.
Griffin, who will turn 27 in February, will again be a free agent, and rather than asking which team will take a flyer on the oft-injured college star, a new question will emerge: Who is actually going to want to sign Robert Griffin III? There’s no team stupid enough to let him challenge for a starting spot (not even you, Jacksonville), and his ego is far too big to sign as a backup, which presupposes a team would even want him as one.
Robert Griffin isn’t a viable NFL quarterback anymore, and he hasn’t been since Mike Shanahan was negligent in leaving the star he never wanted out on the field for Washington’s wild-card playoff game against the Seahawks in 2012. Part of that is because he lost the first step he used to freeze defenses that were cognizant of his arm but terrified of his legs. Some of it is because the NFL finally figured out the gimmicky pistol offense (it always does) and Griffin, as well as Colin Kaepernick, either wouldn’t adapt or couldn’t adapt. (Russell Wilson did.) And the rest is because Griffin was too stubborn to do anything about it. He didn’t want to be a pocket passer. He refused to adapt to fit a system. He never learned to safely slide to avoid injury, something seemingly minor that’s actually a microcosm of his entire NFL life. He rushed back from those injuries, pushed by a marketing campaign, an eager franchise and a football-crazy town that didn’t have the foresight too see that being “all in for Week 1” was going to compromise Weeks 2 through 17 and beyond.
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It’s that obstinance that could keep Griffin off an NFL roster next year. He’s made clear he doesn’t see himself as an NFL backup, and even if you could imagine Griffin ungrudgingly holding a clipboard, it’s even harder seeing a team willing to hand him one. You need your backup to be two things: competent and reliable healthy. Griffin is neither. Of all the things a team wants from a backup, what it really, truly wants is this: not to have to play the third-stringer. With Griffin on the field, that emergency quarterback is always one awkward stride away.
He simply doesn’t fit the mold of a backup, who fall into one of six categories:
1. Waiting in the wings
Description: A talented, young player sits on the bench, waiting to take over the reins. (Examples: Jared Goff, Aaron Rodgers, Steve Young, Jimmy Garoppolo.)
2. The most popular man in town
Description: Usually an mostly unknown quantity who was either good in college or had a stellar preseason game, this backup is constantly on the minds of everybody as a fantasized football cure-all. Everything that ails a football team — nay, the world — could be solved by simply putting this guy in the game to replace the clown ahead of him on the depth chart. His name is on everybody’s lips by Week 3. In Week 5, the camera starts showing him standing on the sideline every third play. A legitimate 80 percent of sports talk radio is dedicated to this one-sided battle. These QBs come with all different shapes, sizes and college pedigree. The only things they have in common: hope and hype. Very few live up to either. (Examples: Kirk Cousins, Tom Savage, Paxton Lynch.)
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3. The diamond in the rough
Description: Goes without saying. (Examples: Kurt Warner, Tom Brady, Brett Favre.)
4. The reclamation project
Description: Randall Cunningham had an MVP-like season years after his high-flying days with the Eagles. Kurt Warner took the Cardinals to the Super Bowl after he was relegated to a backup in St. Louis and New York and left for dead. Jim Plunkett won two Super Bowls. There are plenty of second acts in American football. You’d think Griffin would fit here, but he’s young and has no past glory to reclaim — unless a Heisman Trophy counts, which it doesn’t. (Examples: The guys mentioned above.)
5. The solid veteran
Description: Mark Sanchez is the quintessential backup quarterback. He’s shown over time he’s not nearly good enough to challenge anybody for a starting job, but he’s capable enough to handle a few quarters or, at worst, a few games should QB1 ever go down. He’s never going to rock the boat unless that boat is attached to his offensive lineman’s rear and, given some help, can maintain the status quo as needed. No one will, or ever should, say, “It’s time to give the ball to Sanchez.” He’s a ghost until called upon. Unless you’re grooming the next Rodgers, the solid veteran is who you want. You never need to think about playing him. You never want to play him. But when he needs to, at least you’re not going to have Dan Orlovsky back there. (Examples: Bruce Gradkowski, Drew Stanton, Matt Schaub, every living McCown.)
6. Roster fillers
Pray they never take the field and that a solid veteran hits the market next year. (Examples: Ryan Mallett, Ryan Nassib, Brett Hundley, Scott Tolzein, Trevone Boykin.)
There’s a disconnect between what Griffin is (a roster filler with a 5-20 record over the past four years) and what he believes he is (an NFL starter). Had he been willing to change or adapt he might have a place in the NFL. He still has time to swallow his pride and take a budget backup’s contract in the hopes of eventually getting back to a starting gig one day. Teams are too desperate and enamored of talent not to at least kick the tires. But like another famous Heisman Trophy quarterback who bounced around after early success, Griffin has been neither willing nor able to do the things required to turn around his NFL career. But hey, at least Tim Tebow had a playoff win.