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It was the last moment when everything was still uncomplicated, when the story of Robert Griffin III was still a legend—growing richer and deeper by the week, by the day, and here, as he hobbled valiantly on a wounded leg toward the line of scrimmage, by the second. This, late in the fourth quarter of his first NFL playoff game, was the last moment when the trajectory was still unquestionably pointed skyward, when nobody yet worried about the future or held him up as a cautionary tale, when all that mattered was this moment and this drive, when all anybody asked this twenty-two-year-old rookie quarterback to do was to move the ball 88 yards in 6 minutes 25 seconds, all that remained on the game-clock, for the tying score.
It was the last moment you still had faith that the man known as RG3, bum knee and all, could do it, all of it: put the ball in the end zone, win the game, redeem the Washington Redskins franchise, become the face of the NFL, maybe even change the world someday. Your faith may not have been what it was an hour earlier, when his limp was less noticeable, or a month earlier, when there was no limp at all. But the kid had this way of making people believe in him.
The ball was at the 12-yard line, on the right hash mark, atop the chopped-up turf at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland. It was just after seven o’clock in the evening on January 6, 2013, with Griffin’s Redskins trailing the visiting Seattle Seahawks by a touchdown in their NFC wild-card playoff game. It was second-and-22.
In those last few moments before the ball was snapped, as Griffin crouched four yards behind the center, held his hands in front of him, and barked out the signals, the mind could fathom no outcome that wasn’t at the very least a satisfying one—full of hope for the future and the singular type of awe that comes from witnessing the rise of a transcendent young athlete before our eyes. The Redskins would either come back to beat the Seahawks here and advance to the next stage of the playoffs, or they wouldn’t. But even if they lost and saw their season come to an end, on this particular day—as the Redskins played their first home playoff game in thirteen years—the future seemed bigger than any one victory or loss. The Redskins had already done more this season than anyone could have reasonably expected. Largely because of Griffin’s immense talents and the sheer force of his personality, they were relevant again, regardless of what happened here, and the coming years were all but certain to be full of epic victories, highlight-reel plays starring number 10, and, one suspected, February parades down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Win or lose here, Griffin had already done the heavy lifting in restoring the Redskins to prominence and establishing himself as the top rookie and arguably the most exciting player in the league. Less than a month later, he would be named the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. With an off-the-field magnetism that matched his on-field brilliance—his replica jersey that season sold more units than any other player’s since they started keeping track of the numbers—he was the future face of the NFL, adored by fans nationwide as well as by Madison Avenue.
Griffin’s sprained knee had been getting worse throughout the game, his limp more pronounced, and here in the fourth quarter the crowd was getting nervous. Shouldn’t the Redskins get him out of there? He had been wearing a brace over the knee since injuring it a month earlier, and the team had said he couldn’t injure himself further by playing. The leading sports orthopedist in the nation was right there on the Redskins’ sideline, keeping watch on him. But this didn’t look good. Every step seemed a struggle.
The snap was low and to Griffin’s left. Perfect. When Griffin was a boy, his father used to put him through improvisation drills just like this: Now the ball is snapped over your head. Now it’s way off to the side. The play-call is worthless now. Toss it out the window. You’re going to have to make it up from here—and with the ball on the ground, the defense smells blood. They’re closing in. Quick, what are you going to do? You have to be prepared for that, son. It’s going to happen. And sure enough, a couple of times during Griffin’s stellar career at Baylor University, when the ball was snapped over his head, or when he simply dropped it, he calmly scooped it up, circled past the defenders, and delivered it to the end zone.
But here, with the ball suddenly at his feet, Griffin half-lunged and half-bent down for the ball, planting on his right foot, and something in his knee gave way.
• • •
They locked their pinkies together, little Robby Griffin and his mother, Jacqueline, and he promised—again, but this time a Pinkie Promise, which meant you absolutely could not break it—that he wouldn’t get hurt. That in fact no one was even fast enough to catch him, let alone hurt him.
There was every reason to believe the boy. There wasn’t another twelve-year-old in all of Copperas Cove, Texas, who could run like him, and everyone knew it. He was already gaining a measure of renown as the best young athlete in that part of central Texas—the best basketball player, the fastest hurdler. In those days, the boy worshipped Michael Jordan and wanted nothing more than to grow up to be the next MJ. But football was king in Texas, of course, and as his seventh-grade year approached at S. C. Lee Junior High School, the boy wanted to play the sport that everyone talked about.
Nobody knew him as “the Third” back then, as a twelve-year-old, even though he was the third in a line of Robert Griffins. He was either Rob or Robby or Little Rob, so as to distinguish the youngster from his father, who was simply Robert, or if you preferred, Big Robert or Big Rob or Mr. Griffin or Coach Griffin—but never Robert Junior, and never, ever, ever just plain Junior. Big Robert, a huge football fan, was fine with the idea of his son playing the sport, but it was Jacqueline who needed convincing. In the end, Big Rob and Robby talked her into it, but only if her son Pinkie Promised her.
“If you get tackled, then you’ll quit football?” she asked the boy, locking her pinkie around his.
“Yes, Mom,” he replied. “But they’ll have to catch me to tackle me—and they won’t catch me.”
And so began, for young Robert Griffin III and his family, a lifetime of grappling with the dangers of football—of rationalization and internal deal-making, of precautions taken and precautions ignored, of hits avoided and hits absorbed, of maternal worry and paternal pride in the boy’s growing toughness.
But actually, the reckoning had begun even earlier than that. When he was seven years old and living with relatives in New Orleans while his parents, both sergeants in the Army, were deployed in Korea, little Robby was on his way to get signed up for peewee football, in the passenger seat of a car being driven by his uncle Shane Griffin, when Uncle Shane suddenly turned the car around. What had made him change his mind? Deep down, he knew the boy wasn’t cut out to play football with the rougher, harder “project kids” of the Iberville Projects where they lived. Robby was an outsider, a kid raised mostly on Army bases, and he was a little soft. If he played, there was a good chance he was going to get himself hurt, and Uncle Shane couldn’t let that happen on his watch.
“So,” Shane Griffin recalled, “we went and got some snowballs instead.” (Snowballs, for the uninitiated, are frozen, fruity treats known in other parts of the country as snow cones or shaved ice.)
Fifteen years, two concussions, and one knee surgery later, as Robert Griffin III stood behind the center in the fourth quarter of his first NFL playoff game, with the Redskins’ season ticking away, he could have used a little luck, a little divine intervention, a little stronger knee brace, a little healthier playing field.
But maybe what he really needed was an Uncle Shane.
• • •
You notice things when you cover one person for the better part of a year, as I did in 2012 covering Robert Griffin III for the Washington Post. You watch through binoculars, and you jot things down in a notebook or type them into a computer file—seemingly unrelated, trivial things, stuff that’s probably not even worth a line in a three-thousand-word story but that strikes you at the time as curious or telling or emblematic of something—and when you look back on all these trivial things, you find that perhaps, taken together, they do mean something. There’s a piece of a narrative there.
You notice Griffin, during one of the Redskins’ first pre–training camp workouts in May—the ones called “organized team activities,” or OTAs—spitting on the artificial turf of the team’s indoor practice facility as he jogs past. Then you notice him stopping in his tracks, doubling back, and sheepishly smushing the dollop of spit into the turf with his foot. It’s as if he’s hearing his mother’s voice in his head saying, You wouldn’t do that in somebody’s house, would you?
You notice the Gatorade cups strewn all over the Redskins’ sideline as players, in the heat of battle on a regular-season Sunday afternoon, grab a cup off a table filled with cups, throw back its contents, and toss the cup on the ground—too busy, or too psyched-up, or too important to put the empty cup in the trash can that sits behind the bench. And then you see Griffin drinking from his cup, and you see him walking around the bench and dropping the cup in the trash can. The great ones are often meticulous like that, whether about their schedules, their lockers, or their appearance. But Griffin doesn’t just seem meticulous. He seems overwhelmingly polite.
You notice how he pauses in the middle of his news conferences, in the shade of a tree outside the Redskins’ headquarters in Ashburn, Virginia—almost directly below the flight path for runway 19L of Dulles International Airport—whenever an approaching jet passes overhead so that the audio isn’t ruined for the TV and radio stations. You note that nobody else around the Redskins does that.
You notice the way he stands in the huddle, leaning forward on one leg, with his other leg behind him, so that his face is near the center of the huddle but he is still at eye level with his teammates—rather than crouching down, as some do, so that you have to look up at everyone, or leaning in sideways, halfheartedly, as if you’ve got better things to do. The way Griffin does it, he can look into everyone’s eyes.
And you notice, on September 16, 2012—in the waning minutes of the Redskins’ gut-wrenching 31–28 loss to the St. Louis Rams in Week 2—Griffin approaching a teammate sitting alone on the bench in misery. The player is Josh Morgan, a veteran wide receiver, and moments earlier he had single-handedly blown the Redskins’ final chance at a comeback by throwing the ball at an opponent out of frustration and drawing a fifteen-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, pushing them out of field goal range—a lapse in judgment that would later make him the target of death threats and racist taunts. As those final seconds ticked down, no other Redskins player would go anywhere near Morgan on the bench until Griffin, who that day made his second regular-season NFL start and was about to absorb his first NFL loss, walked over, rubbed Morgan’s head, leaned in, and said something to him.
“Keep your head up and keep going,” Griffin told him.
Morgan looked up, nodded, and went back to his thoughts—but right there something had changed.
“Yeah, it did mean a lot to me,” Morgan recalled later. “He didn’t have to do that.”
Clearly, Griffin was different. The question was, different how?
In his famous biography of Bill Bradley, A Sense of Where You Are, author John McPhee wrote of his subject, “Basketball was more a part of him than he a part of basketball. The most interesting thing about Bill Bradley was not just that he was a great basketball player, but that he succeeded so amply in other things that he was doing at the same time, reached a more promising level of attainment, and, in the end, put basketball aside because he had something better to do.”
It was easy to view Griffin in similar terms. Don’t misunderstand—Bradley was a unique figure in sports history: a Rhodes Scholar and Princeton man who enjoyed a Hall of Fame basketball career, then went on to become a three-term United States senator. But just as with Bradley and basketball, Griffin seemed like someone for whom football wasn’t the destination, but merely the vehicle to get him to something bigger and more important. Whether he eventually went into politics or some other field, Griffin, like Bradley, seemed destined to rise above his sport.
There was only one difference: Bradley’s sport didn’t have the potential to maim him for life.
• • •
When Jackie Griffin told me the Pinkie Promise story, we were sitting on the metal bleachers of the football field at S. C. Lee Junior High in Copperas Cove, where her son had first played organized football. It was April 16, 2012, a beautiful, cloudless Texas spring day, just ten days before her son would be chosen by the Redskins with the No. 2 overall selection of the NFL draft.
Petite and stylish, with a toothy smile that left no doubt as to where her son had gotten his, she could have passed for Robert Griffin III’s sister, though she was already a grandmother (the Griffins’ oldest daughter, Jihan, had a four-year-old daughter, Jania). While her son gave an interview on the black asphalt track below, Jacqueline sat on the bleachers next to Robert’s fiancée, Rebecca Liddicoat, and watched him. She had never missed one of her son’s games, at any level, and was already figuring on moving to whatever NFL city Robert wound up in, in order to keep that streak alive.
In those days, the NFL seemed to be at something of a crossroads. Less than a month earlier, the league had suspended three New Orleans Saints coaches, plus the team’s general manager, for their roles in what had come to be known as “Bountygate”—the alleged payment system whereby defensive players were rewarded with cash bonuses for hits that injured opposing players. A few weeks later, suspensions would also be announced for four players allegedly involved in the bounties. This came, of course, on top of the ongoing concussion scandal that was proceeding along incrementally—another lawsuit filed here, another ex-player revealed to have brain damage there.
This was the NFL into which Robert and Jacqueline Griffin were about to entrust the youngest of their three children, and I wondered if Mrs. Griffin had any reservations about seeing her son play such a violent sport at the highest, fastest, biggest level, given all that had emerged in recent months. That’s when she told the story of the Pinkie Promise. It was a cute story, and she chuckled and smiled throughout, but it was clear that, below the surface, some reckoning had been necessary—some soul-searching, some bargaining, some compartmentalizing—in order to live with the danger. For Jacqueline Griffin, that reckoning involved constant prayer.
“Everybody knows I pray the whole game,” she said with a laugh. “It’s like, ‘Oh, she’s not ignoring you—she’s praying.’”
Robert and Jackie Griffin were the perfect parents for raising a future superstar. Not perfect parents, mind you, because there is no such thing, but perfect in their concept of parenthood, and their dedication to it. There was a military precision to their approach, as might befit two retired Army sergeants. They had discussed and planned their strategy for parenthood from the very beginning, and they were on the same page in terms of the sacrifices they would make, the lifestyle they would choose, the discipline they would deliver. There was also a clear delineation of duties between them when it came to raising their three children—daughters Jihan and De’Jon and son Robert—as much due to the natural differences in their temperaments as to any clear lines they had drawn.
“They’re like the yin and the yang,” Robert Griffin III told me in April.
The father was the hard one, the tough one, the kind of man who never cried in front of his children—the kind of man who had risen from private E1 to staff sergeant E6 in less than two years after joining the Army, the kind of father who, when little Robert, then seven years old, told him he wanted to be the best basketball player ever, said okay, then took the boy to a basketball court and made him shoot 120 layups, left-handed, to see if the boy really had the kind of commitment it takes to be the best.
The mother, meanwhile, was the one to whom the boy ran home afterward, in tears. She comforted the boy and told him that his father knew what he was doing, even if neither she nor the boy could quite understand it at that moment.
Once, in June, when I was interviewing Robert Griffin Jr. in the living room of his Copperas Cove home, in the middle of an answer about parenting he pointed across the room at the door that led to the section of the house where the three kids’ bedrooms were.
“I hardly ever went over there,” he admitted. “That’s where their bedrooms are. Even now, I never go over there.”
• • •
By the end of Robert Griffin III’s rookie season, ten-time all-pro linebacker Junior Seau was dead from suicide at age forty-three, his brain showing signs of football-inflicted brain damage; the number of concussion-related lawsuits against the NFL had grown to more than two hundred, representing more than four thousand former players or their estates; President Barack Obama, in an interview with the New Republic, had said he would “have to think long and hard” about letting a son play football; and Griffin himself was holed up in the Florida Panhandle, rehabbing from his second reconstructive knee surgery in three and a half years.
The final toll on Griffin’s body during his rookie season included one confirmed concussion, one additional blow to the head that necessitated concussion testing (which he passed), one unspecified rib injury that required X-rays (negative), and finally, one torn lateral collateral ligament, one re-torn anterior cruciate ligament, and one partially torn medial meniscus, all in his right knee.
And that was only what had been revealed publicly—to say nothing of the invisible toll. By the time Griffin’s season ended with the shredded knee, he seemed wholly diminished—not only physically but emotionally and mentally as well, a sense that was only confirmed when he went underground for months following the surgery, his only communication with the outside world coming through a trickle of platitude-heavy tweets that read as if ripped from a motivational text (“God would not test you if you were not ready,” he wrote on January 19). Was he disillusioned by what he encountered during his rookie season—not only the injuries but also perhaps the inflexibility of the Redskins’ play-calling and the minefield of questions about race from the media? The answers apparently would have to wait until the new season, if they would be offered at all.
There were any number of stand-out moments from what was arguably the most dazzling rookie season in recent NFL history: The seventy-six-yard touchdown run against Minnesota, the longest by a quarterback in sixteen years. The eighty-eight-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon against New Orleans in Griffin’s NFL debut. The scramble-juke-and-pass conversion of a fourth-and-10 against the New York Giants. The sixty-eight-yard touchdown heave to Aldrick Robinson against the Dallas Cowboys in a nationally televised Thanksgiving Day game.
He was that rare, heavily hyped, supposedly once-in-a-generation phenom who actually surpassed the immense expectations. Think about that list: who else in the last quarter-century might be on it? Perhaps Tiger Woods. Perhaps LeBron James. But it’s a very short list. Not only did Griffin set all-time NFL records for passer rating (102.4), interception percentage (1.3), and rushing yards (815) by a rookie quarterback—while leading the entire NFL in both yards per pass attempt and yards per rush attempt—he also guided the Redskins to a 10-6 record and the franchise’s first NFC East title since 1999.
But he was never the same after the original injury, suffered on a scramble out of the pocket on December 9 against Baltimore—when his knee absorbed the full force of a hit by a 340-pound defensive tackle named Haloti Ngata. He would miss one game (against his will) with what was originally diagnosed as a grade-1 ligament sprain and would play in three more, including the playoff game against the Seahawks. But his explosiveness was largely gone, and his passes lost their zip as his back, push-off leg weakened—a process that seemed to accelerate during the course of that playoff game.
The season produced indelible images: Griffin seated on the turf of the Superdome during his debut, with his arms raised in the air, fingers pointed skyward, after the touchdown pass to Garcon. Griffin engulfed by enraptured female fans in the front row of FedEx Field after an impromptu leap into the stands following the touchdown sprint against the Vikings. And always, Griffin smiling that perfect smile. Ultimately, however, the lingering image of Griffin from the 2012 season—because it was the final image, and because of the visceral reaction it produced—will always be of him crumpling to the turf at FedEx Field on January 6, having been unwilling to take himself out of the game until it was too late, and unspared by anyone else willing to take the decision out of his hands. In the end, he embodied, to a fault, the football code that says you never willingly come out of a game.
“It doesn’t matter how many times they hit me, I’m going to continue to get back up,” Griffin had said months earlier, in a telling moment after a brutally physical game against the Cincinnati Bengals in which he was battered mercilessly. “Even if they have to cart me off the field, I’m going to get off that cart and walk away.”
Indeed, when the doctors and trainers finally came onto the field on January 6 to get Griffin out of the game, after the low snap and the lunge and the knee giving out, he rose to his feet with some help, then brushed away offers for a shoulder or an arm to lean on as he made his way off the field. He walked off on his own, giving a grim little half-wave, half-salute to the crowd as he neared the sideline.
He had become not only a part of football’s twisted, violent, play-at-all-costs culture—football being the only arena, other than the battlefield, where it is considered normal to play through the type of knee injury Griffin was dealing with—but its ultimate expression. Just twenty-two years old (the first quarterback born in the 1990s to play in the NFL), the brightest rookie star in America’s most popular sport, the darling of Madison Avenue, Griffin had more to lose than anyone by putting his health on the line to stay in that game. And still he stayed. Where did that get him? In a hospital bed in Florida, with a future that now seemed a little less certain, if not a little less bright.
He had opened his rookie season as a symbol of everything that is beautiful and alluring about the NFL—his dazzling performance at New Orleans on September 9 was arguably the greatest debut by a rookie quarterback in league history, and it practically demanded that no game with Robert Griffin III in it should ever be missed again—and he ended it four months later as a symbol of everything that is rotten about the NFL.
As for the Pinkie Promise with his mother, it had been broken long before. But on the shredded turf of FedEx Field that day, it felt as if he had effectively spit on it and smushed it into the ground.
THE PERFECT QUARTERBACK
If you were to assemble the perfect NFL quarterback from the attributes of various existing specimens, you might take Michael Vick’s speed, Drew Brees’s accuracy, Jay Cutler’s arm strength, Peyton Manning’s intelligence and field vision, Tom Brady’s pocket awareness and clutchness, and Aaron Rodgers’s evasiveness. You might want to go even further in constructing the man who will be the face of your franchise for the next decade or so and also give him some helpful, intangible skills: Ben Roethlisberger’s leadership ability, Philip Rivers’s hard-nosed toughness, and the solid character and camera-ready magnetism of . . . well, let’s go ahead and say it: Tim Tebow.
No such creature exists, of course, just as there similarly exists no hideous, opposite creature—you know, with Vick’s prison record, Brees’s receding hairline, Cutler’s petulance, Manning’s Manning Face, Brady’s whininess, and so on and so forth. But as the NFL draft approached in the first part of 2012, certain observers around the league, including some residing high up in the Washington Redskins’ organization, were beginning to think that the closest thing to it anyone had seen in a long, long time was hurtling toward the NFL in the form of Baylor University quarterback Robert Griffin III.
Griffin’s highlight reel alone was enough to warrant checking off several of those “perfect” attributes—full of flick-of-the-wrist deep balls, thread-the-needle throws in heavy traffic, and breathtaking sprints, scrambles, and jukes around and through defenses. Just that winter, in December 2011, he had been awarded the Heisman Trophy—punctuating the night by delivering a memorable, quotable speech and charming the assembled media with his silly socks (specifically, Superman, complete with little red capes on each) and his big, toothy smile.
“Robert Griffin III will be the next quarterback to revolutionize the game,” former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks wrote on the NFL.com website in late 2011. “. . . Griffin possesses the speed and explosiveness of Michael Vick and the arm strength and pocket presence of Drew Brees. He combines those remarkable athletic traits with a keen football sense that translates into spectacular play on the field.”
You want fast? He was an elite hurdler, having set a pair of state records as a Texas high schooler, winning a Big 12 championship as a Baylor freshman, and qualifying for the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials (where he advanced to the semifinals but failed to qualify for the Beijing Games) before putting aside his track career (only temporarily, he has insisted) in the interest of football. Two months before the 2012 draft, at the NFL scouting combine—where prospective draft picks are measured and sized up and looked over like sides of beef—he ran a 4.41 time in the 40-yard dash, the third-fastest ever recorded by a quarterback, behind only Vick (4.33) and Reggie McNeal (4.40).
You want accurate? He completed 67.1 percent of his passes as a collegian—getting better with each season, from 59.9 percent as a freshman to 72.4 percent as a junior (his final season before turning pro).
You want intelligent? He finished high school a semester early (graduating seventh in his class), completed his bachelor’s degree in political science at Baylor in three years, and was a thesis shy of completing a master’s in communications by the spring of 2012. Had he stayed at Baylor for his senior season of eligibility, he was planning to enroll in law school—another childhood dream he had given up (again, he has insisted, only temporarily) for football.
You want character? He was the son of two retired Army sergeants, had never so much as tried alcohol or drugs, and as a high schooler was often seen in his hometown of Copperas Cove pulling a tire up a hill for a couple of hours—after football practice was over.
You want magnetism? Sponsors—big-time ones, like Subway, Gatorade, and Adidas—were lining up at his agents’ doors to sign him up, well in advance of the actual draft. It scarcely mattered what NFL team he ultimately played for. His market was clearly bigger than whatever local area claimed him as its own. This guy was going national.
You want size? Well, okay—that’s one attribute we conveniently neglected to ascribe to our mythical “perfect” quarterback.
Ideally, you would want him to have Cam Newton’s size and strength—a chiseled, six-foot-five, 248-pound monster capable of breaking tackles, seeing over defensive linemen, and absorbing a season’s worth of pounding. Griffin, on the other hand, at six-two, 225 pounds, was not small by any means—Brees, at six feet, 205 pounds, is among the quarterbacks who have proven that size is not everything—but not as big as you might hope for someone who was certain to be a running threat in the NFL.
As it happened, there was another quarterback pointed toward the April 2012 draft who had arguably as much claim to the title of the “Perfect Quarterback” as did Griffin—or, judging from their expected draft order, even more of a claim.
Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III had been crossing paths and career trajectories since the days before Griffin regularly had a “III” attached to his name—since 2007, in fact, when Griffin, then a rising high school senior, took an official recruiting visit to Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, where then head coach Jim Harbaugh was putting the hard sell on him to join another highly touted recruit, Luck, as co-quarterbacks of the Cardinal.
Though Griffin ultimately declined the scholarship offer—“That system never works,” he would say later of the dual-quarterback plan—he and Luck would continue to be measured against each other as collegians, straight through the 2011 season, when Griffin, almost an afterthought to voters when the season began, outplayed Luck, especially on their respective games on the biggest stages, and took home a Heisman Trophy that most experts at season’s start had figured was Luck’s to lose.
Bigger (six-four, 234 pounds) and a more polished drop-back passer than Griffin (and thus, at least according to conventional wisdom, better suited to the NFL style of play), Luck also displayed surprising speed for a bigger quarterback, clocking a 4.67 in the 40-yard dash at the combine—slower than Griffin by more than a few steps, but significantly faster than other successful drop-back passers of recent vintage, including Brady (5.28), Rivers (5.08), Joe Flacco (4.86), and Brees (4.83).
As the NFL draft approached, it was widely expected that the Indianapolis Colts, who were on the verge of letting the future Hall of Famer Manning depart via free agency, would take Luck with the No. 1 overall pick.
The No. 2 pick, meanwhile, was held by the St. Louis Rams, who already had a promising young quarterback in Sam Bradford and who were letting it be known to the thirty teams behind them in the draft order that the pick was available to any team willing to mortgage a sizable chunk of its future to move up.
• • •
It is an exceedingly difficult thing to pull off: taking a flagship NFL franchise, a semi-dynasty with thirteen playoff appearances and three Super Bowl titles in a twenty-two-season span from 1971 to 1992, and with a fan base so rabid and loyal that the waiting list for season tickets was said to be hundreds of thousands of names long, and turning it into a laughingstock—the punch line of late-night television jokes, a sad, irrelevant has-been of a franchise. At a certain point, success in professional sports, even the parity-crazed NFL, can become so self-sustaining, with fan support swelling and free agents crawling all over each other to come play for you, that it is nearly impossible to go from dynastic greatness to abject misery for more than a year or two at a time.
But by God, that’s what the Washington Redskins had managed to do under owner Daniel Snyder, the billionaire communications mogul who purchased the team in 1999 and set about systematically ridding the franchise of all its glory, its standing as an NFL flagship, and, ultimately, its charm. Under Snyder, the Redskins lost big, and his response was always to double-down on another shiny, expensive (and aging) bauble (or two or three), which was how recent Redskins history had come to be littered with the bloated corpses of ill-fated acquisitions such as Deion Sanders, Jeff George, Bruce Smith, Mark Brunell, Adam Archuleta, Albert Haynesworth, and Donovan McNabb. Snyder’s record with head coaches was not much better—he had cycled through seven of them in thirteen years.
Snyder’s Redskins made the playoffs in his first season as owner, 1999, but would do so only two more times in the next twelve years. And things were only getting worse. As the 2012 draft approached, the Redskins were coming off their fourth consecutive last-place finish in the NFC East division, and most if not all of the fans’ vitriol—at least from those who still cared—was directed squarely at Snyder.
Snyder’s most recent plot to dig himself out of his mess, in January 2010, was to throw $35 million at Mike Shanahan, the two-time Super Bowl–winning former coach of the Denver Broncos, to entice him into coaching the Redskins. To seal the deal, Snyder also had named Shanahan vice president of football operations, giving him the final say on personnel matters—a power afforded to few other head coaches in the NFL. Not to say that Shanahan didn’t believe Snyder’s promise to stay out of personnel matters, but just to be sure, he insisted that such a clause be written into his Redskins contract.
The Redskins went 6–10 and 5–11 in Shanahan’s first two seasons at the helm—a horrific stretch that was perhaps most memorable for the very ugly, very public endings to the brief Redskins careers of Haynesworth and McNabb, both of whom had clashed with Shanahan. Haynesworth, the oversize, overpaid, and undermotivated defensive tackle whom they jettisoned in July 2011, may go down as the single worst free agent signing in the history of the NFL, a $100 million bust from which the Redskins still have not completely recovered. Meantime, McNabb’s rancorous departure that same month, after one full season during which he was twice benched unceremoniously, had kept alive the franchise’s losing streak with quarterbacks—which dated back, some would say, to the days of Joe Theismann—and left the Redskins’ quarterbacking duties in the hands of veterans Rex Grossman and John Beck, who proceeded to combine for a whopping twenty-four interceptions during the horrific 2011 season.
If ever there was a franchise in need of a bold move in an altogether new direction, it was the Redskins—even if few trusted them to do it right.
The Redskins’ first target that winter was Manning, the then thirty-five-year-old future Hall of Famer who had missed the entire 2011 season with the Indianapolis Colts while recovering from surgery to fuse together two vertebrae in his neck. As difficult as it was for the Colts to part with the quarterback who had spent thirteen seasons in their uniform, winning a Super Bowl in 2006, they were coming off a 2-14 train wreck of a season with Manning sidelined, and they saw themselves in need of a rebuilding project. As they saw it, Luck was the answer.
But the Redskins’ chances of landing Manning were slim to begin with—some doubted whether the superstar quarterback wanted to play in the same division as his brother, Eli, which would mean two head-to-head games per year—and got even thinner after the NFL docked the Redskins $36 million in salary-cap space over a two-year period as a penalty for allegedly attempting to gain an unfair competitive advantage during the uncapped 2010 season. Shanahan and his son Kyle, the Redskins’ offensive coordinator, met secretly with Manning at the elder Shanahan’s Colorado home, but the Redskins never appeared to be serious contenders for Manning’s services, and he eventually signed with the Broncos.
At the same time, however, the Redskins had begun to explore the possibility of making a trade with the Rams for the No. 2 overall draft pick—and the chance to get Griffin. At the NFL combine in February, Shanahan had whispered in Griffin’s ear that the Redskins would try to trade up and get him. The move, if they could pull it off, would only be four spots in the order, from the Redskins’ assigned No. 6 position, but they knew the cost would be steep. The market for such trades essentially had been set in 2004 when the New York Giants had given up two first-round picks, plus a third-rounder and a fifth-rounder, to the San Diego Chargers in order to get Eli Manning with the first overall pick. If anything, the NFL was even more of a quarterback-driven league now—coming off a 2011 season in which three quarterbacks had passed for more than 5,000 yards and three others had surpassed 4,500—than it had been eight years earlier. In other words, the price had gone up.
There is perhaps no more valuable or rare commodity in American professional sports than what has come to be known as the “franchise quarterback”—the type of talented, commanding signal-caller who might run your offense for a decade or more. How many honest-to-God, unquestioned, slam-dunk franchise quarterbacks even existed in the NFL in the spring of 2012? Let’s see: certainly Brady, Brees, Rodgers, Roethlisberger, and the Manning brothers—the six quarterbacks responsible for the previous nine Super Bowl titles. But who else? Maybe Rivers? Maybe Newton? Maybe Cutler? Matt Ryan? Matthew Stafford? Tony Romo? Joe Flacco? Even if you generously counted all of them, that meant fewer than half of the league’s thirty-two teams were at that moment in possession of a franchise quarterback. And the ones who didn’t have one were constantly in search of one.
Once upon a time it may have been possible to win a Super Bowl with an average quarterback (see: Dilfer, Trent, 2000), but several pass-friendly rules changes in recent years and the growing sophistication of offenses throughout the league had made it more imperative than ever to acquire a franchise quarterback.
And now here was a draft with—potentially, anyway—two of them.
Quietly, Mike Shanahan had spent much of the first part of 2012 holed up in front of a television screen, watching every play of every season of the collegiate careers of Griffin and Luck. Why Luck too? Because the Redskins, if they traded up to the No. 2 overall spot, couldn’t be sure the Colts wouldn’t change their minds at some point and take Griffin at No. 1. It wasn’t likely, but as Shanahan would say later, “You don’t make that move unless you think the world of both guys.”
Apparently, he did. On March 9, word began to leak that the Redskins had pulled off the deal, outmaneuvering and outbidding the Cleveland Browns to nab that No. 2 overall pick from the Rams. The cost was indeed steep: in addition to giving up their first-round pick in 2012 (sixth overall), the Redskins had to part with their first-round picks in both 2013 and 2014, plus their second-round pick in 2012.
“When you bought your home, you probably wanted to pay a little less too,” Redskins general manager Bruce Allen told reporters after the details of the trade made their way to the public. “[But] you like your home once you’ve lived in it.”
The Redskins had their man, but with the price they paid in draft picks—plus the $36 million salary-cap hit hanging over them—they could pretty much forget any notion of rebuilding around him. Robert Griffin III was going to have to do this dirty job, turning around the Redskins, more or less on his own.
• • •
So who was this man—this telegenic, multifaceted, crazy-sock-wearing, Heisman Trophy–sporting, sort-of-dorky, sort-of-cool, gunslinging, swashbuckling Texan with the meticulous braids and the Dylanesque pencil-thin mustache? In the days following the trade, you could practically hear the Internet groaning and straining around the Washington area as a gazillion Redskins fans took to YouTube and Google in search of answers. Meantime, the Washington Post put me on a plane to Texas in search of the same.
In the days and weeks that followed the trade, it started to become clear that Griffin was not only some mad scientist’s rendering of the Perfect Quarterback—or as close to it as is humanly possible—but quite possibly also the perfect superstar for our times, potentially an icon for the ages. This was a guy who, if all went according to plan, was going to win not only a lot of games, a lot of titles, and a lot of awards but a lot of hearts as well—someone who was going to sell not only a lot of tickets but a lot of sneakers, foot-long sandwiches, and bottles of neon-colored sports drink.
His press conferences were epic, ad-libbed, virtuoso performances, utterly devoid of the sort of eye-roll-inducing, well-coached, clichéd quotes spouted by 99 percent of athletes, but also never coming close to veering off the rails. He was, in a word, charming.
“Who are you?” a reporter asked bluntly at Griffin’s news conference following the NFL scouting combine in February, some two weeks before the trade. The intent was clearly to throw him off guard, make him think on his feet: Here, kid—let’s see what you’re made of.
“Heh heh,” Griffin laughed. “What? That sounds like a paper from my English class.” After a pause to let the laughter die down in the room, he continued, “I’m just the person that I am.”
Later, someone asked about the possibility of a team trading up in the draft to pick him.
“As a player, you want a team that really wants you,” he said. “Head coach, GM, owner—everybody that really wants you in that place and [where] the players believe in you. That’s what I’m looking forward to. I’m looking forward to making somebody fall in love with me.”
There was a duality about Griffin that was downright disarming—springing, one could speculate, from “the yin and the yang” of his parents. He was raised under strict military discipline, yet cherished and flaunted his individualism (sock choice at the combine: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). He expertly straddled the line between humility and confidence, neither trait appearing forced in any way. He seemed extroverted and outgoing, yet described himself as a loner by nature—someone whose idea of a great night was listening to music and watching movies on his couch. He sported no tattoos or piercings, but wore his hair in the sort of long braids that might take some getting used to in middle America. He was African American and deeply Christian, yet kept his thoughts about race and religion to himself. He played the meanest, most violent team sport in the world—and by all accounts played it with alarming aggressiveness and toughness—yet also wrote poetry and once composed a love song that he sang to his girlfriend during an elaborate marriage proposal in 2010. (She said yes, of course.)
“He has two sides,” the girlfriend-turned-fiancée, Rebecca Liddicoat, said. “What everyone sees is the serious, football side. But really, he’s kind of goofy.”
“Yeah, I’m a hopeless romantic,” Griffin explained. “So anything I write about is love or the sky. I have a weird fascination with the sky. It’s pretty cool. Whenever you’re flying and you just look at the clouds—that’s pretty sweet. Those are the types of things I write about. I don’t write about heartbreak and things of that nature.”
Above all, Griffin possessed a self-awareness that was rare for an elite athlete, let alone an NFL rookie fresh out of college. He seemed fully cognizant of his rare gifts and the power for good that was bestowed upon him by them. He possessed the innate sense to know exactly when to flash the big smile, when to crack a joke, when to be serious, when to be humble—and not because he was coached in the art of press conferences. He was just a natural.
He also seemed to be of no specific place: born in Okinawa, Japan, shuttled from one military base to another as a young boy, raised primarily in Texas, with roots that trace back on both sides of his family to New Orleans—but with no identifying features such as an accent or a style of dress that would peg him to one locale. He was of the world—the kind of guy who had possessed a passport since he was two months old, the kind of guy who could name-drop President Obama and not sound boastful.
“Maybe me and the president can actually live up to the deal we made,” Griffin said when it started to appear likely he was heading to Washington. Back in January 2012, he had attended the National Prayer Breakfast at the White House and met Obama. “I challenged him to a basketball game, but he said he wouldn’t play against me—he’d play with me. So, two-on-two—whoever wants it, let’s go.”
It wasn’t immediately clear that Griffin loved football, but he loved the competition, and he loved the platform the sport had given him. He acknowledged that basketball was his first love, and that his best sport was probably track and field—but the former had been ruled out because he felt he wasn’t tall enough to make it big, and the latter didn’t offer the same type of stage. He didn’t seem to court fame as much as he courted greatness, and if that brought fame along with it, well, that was cool too.
He also seemed wholly unfazed by the notion of pressure, even the sort of stomach-churning pressure that one would expect to come from being pegged as the new savior of a floundering, once-proud franchise such as the Redskins. Anytime he was asked about pressure, he spouted a phrase that had become a motto of sorts to him and his Baylor teammates during the 2011 season (and that he would eventually seek to trademark): “No pressure, no diamonds.”
But when pressed about it, he was expansive and thoughtful with his answer.
“I think the mistake a lot of guys make is looking at the big picture,” he said in April. “If you look at the big picture—yeah, you’re going to be paid millions. You’re going to have millions of fans out there cheering for you, and then if you throw one interception you’re going to have millions of fans saying you should be benched. So I think a lot of guys look at the big picture and say, ‘I’ve got all these people leaning on me.’ But if you go to work every day and get better, [if] you watch film and work on your footwork, [if] you understand the playbook—then you can worry about the big things later at the end of season, when you go 10-6 and win the Super Bowl. Then you can say, ‘I had all these people leaning on me.’
“You can’t let your emotions or how you feel about yourself sway with the tide that’s going to be [there] when you have millions of people watching. Some people are going to love you, some aren’t. You just have to do what you have to do to make sure the guys in the locker room support you and the coaches support you. That’s what I say about the pressure: Don’t look at the big picture. Worry about the little things, and the big things will fall into place.”
He had said he wanted someone to fall in love with him, and—well, it was abundantly clear that wasn’t going to be a problem. If Griffin was indeed on his way to Washington, and if he was as good as advertised, this was going to be a love affair—giddy, sloppy, head-over-heels love—the likes of which the city had never seen.
It is often said in Washington that the second-most-important person in town, behind only the occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, is the quarterback of the Redskins. But if that quarterback was going to be Griffin, that order was subject to change.
• • •
At first, nobody at the large dinner table seemed to notice as Griffin casually rose to his feet and started to remove his green Adidas hoodie—incognito, just the way he had planned for this moment to go down. The kid had a great sense of timing and a flair for the theatrical, and as he peeled off the sweatshirt all eyes suddenly started to pivot toward his chest, where now was revealed a burgundy T-shirt with the familiar Redskins logo on the front—the gold circle with the profile view of a native American warrior, facing to the right, and two feathers hanging down from the left side of the circle.
The room broke into spasms of laughter and applause at Griffin’s surprise, and the young man flashed a big smile and sat back down. It was March 20, 2012—less than two weeks after the blockbuster trade, but still some five weeks out from the draft—and Griffin, his fiancée, and his parents were out at dinner in a private back room at the 135 Prime Steakhouse in Waco, Texas, with the top brass of the Redskins: Snyder, Allen, and Mike and Kyle Shanahan.
The next day would be Baylor’s Pro Day—a school-organized showcase of its draft-eligible players for the benefit of any interested NFL teams. It would also be the first time the Redskins had watched Griffin throw passes in person; at the combine two weeks earlier, Griffin had declined to throw—a common choice made by top quarterback prospects—preferring to do so under the more controlled conditions, with his own handpicked receivers, at Pro Day in Waco. The fact that the Redskins’ top executives had made the trip personally underscored how important the day would be.
At the dinner table that night, Snyder and his lieutenants seemed genuinely shocked by Griffin’s premeditated gesture. It still seemed premature—to everyone but Griffin, that is—for such symbolism. The Colts, who still hadn’t made a firm declaration of their intentions with the first overall pick, had also sent a contingent (including head coach Chuck Pagano) to Waco for Baylor’s Pro Day, and nobody could be certain they wouldn’t veer away from the conventional wisdom and choose Griffin over Luck.
“What if you had gotten the days mixed up,” Snyder leaned over and asked Griffin, “and worn a Colts shirt by mistake?”
Griffin laughed at the question, but he was dead serious about the message he was trying to send: I want to be a Redskin.
“I wanted to show them where my mind was, where my heart was,” he said later. “I knew my Pro Day was going to go extremely well, [but] I didn’t want to make the Colts want me. I wasn’t going to play that game.”
While Griffin plowed through a filet mignon, Liddicoat, who had grown up a Broncos fan outside of Denver, chatted up Mike Shanahan about the John Elway/Terrell Davis glory days. Meantime, Snyder was quizzing Griffin’s father about the young man, perhaps trying to get a better read on his character.
“What kind of car does he drive?” Snyder asked.
“Chrysler Pacifica—the whole time he was at Baylor,” the elder Griffin replied.
“Good, because guys in our parking lot drive Bentleys,” said Snyder.
The father laughed. “If Robert shows up there driving a Bentley,” he replied, “you call me.”
Finally, as the dinner was breaking up, Snyder handed the younger Griffin a gift: a book about the history of the Redskins franchise. Griffin thanked him and vowed to read it cover to cover.
The next morning Griffin showed up at Baylor’s indoor practice facility—the same place where he had proposed to his girlfriend a year and a half earlier—sporting neon-yellow Adidas sneakers and a lime-green Adidas pullover, which he removed to reveal a black Adidas T-shirt reading, NO PRESSURE, NO DIAMONDS. (He had already signed an endorsement deal with the sports apparel giant.) For thirty minutes, as the coaches and executives from twenty-five NFL teams watched and took notes, Griffin and his teammates put on a show. He flew around the field from sideline to sideline, unleashing a series of cannon-shot deep balls (one of them estimated to have flown sixty-five yards on the fly) and laserlike short-range throws—from the shotgun, from under center, on seven-step drop-backs and rollouts. A sound track handpicked by Griffin blasted from the speakers (tracks included Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” and Gorilla Zoe’s “Look Like Money”—with a refrain that went, “Everywhere I go, I’m looking nice / I look like money”).
For his final play, Griffin had scripted a surprise: a trick play, the exact one that had ended every one of Baylor’s practices the season before—and that had even worked its way into games a handful of times. After taking the snap, Griffin lateraled to Kendall Wright, his favorite receiver, then bolted down the sideline and hauled in a deep pass thrown by Wright (a former high school quarterback himself, as well as an accomplished collegiate receiver who would wind up going twentieth overall in the draft). Afterward, Griffin and all his receivers converged for a silly end-zone celebration, signaling the end of the show.
(Evidently, the trick play made a lasting impression on Mike and Kyle Shanahan—because some seven months later, in Week 8 of Griffin’s rookie season with the Redskins, they would dial up a very similar play against the Pittsburgh Steelers, with near-disastrous results.)
“It’s not stressful when you don’t feel like you have to prove anything,” Griffin, obviously confident about the Redskins’ intentions, told a gaggle of media members numbering more than one hundred. “The game tape speaks for itself. [That’s] going to tell everybody who you are. Today is just [about] coming out and confirming it.”
Standing off to Griffin’s side that day, overseeing his workout, was a middle-aged man with the weathered face and hard squint of an NFL coaching lifer. Terry Shea has spent forty years coaching in the collegiate and professional ranks, specializing in quarterbacks, and since 2009 he has worked as a consultant to top draft-eligible quarterbacks heading into the NFL combine and the draft.
For nine weeks over the winter, Griffin worked out under Shea’s tutelage in Phoenix, focusing on everything from footwork to balance to throwing mechanics to strength training. Griffin wasn’t the first future NFL star to train under Shea—who had also worked with Matthew Stafford and Sam Bradford prior to their drafts—but he was undoubtedly the first to bring his mother along for the whole time. Jacqueline Griffin accompanied her son to each workout, standing off to the side with a video camera, then sent the footage back to Texas for Big Robert to watch.
Here, in Waco, Shea whispered to Griffin just before the workout started, “This is your moment. You go out and grab it now,” then watched with a satisfied look as Griffin wrapped up his Pro Day performance. The Colts and Redskins contingents were both headed to California that evening to watch Luck go through the same exercise in Palo Alto.
“Well,” Shea told a group of reporters, nodding in the direction of the Redskins’ bigwigs, “I can’t believe they’d have any questions after that.”
• • •
So who was the better quarterback, or more specifically, the more deserving No. 1 draft pick: Luck or Griffin?
It was, in one sense, a matter of taste, and in another, perhaps more important, sense, a matter of risk acceptance. NFL history was littered with examples of No. 1 overall picks who wound up as epic busts (Tim Couch and JaMarcus Russell come immediately to mind), and the GMs and coaches responsible for the disastrous picks can never live down their mistakes. Putting aside the relative abilities of Griffin and Luck, the latter was widely seen as the safer choice, as being more polished and more experienced in running a pro-style offense. Maybe it was true, as some argued, that Griffin had a higher ceiling, but Luck was perceived as less likely to wash out or get hurt, and in the risk-averse world of the NFL the safer pick was usually the right pick.
That, essentially, was the Colts’ rationale for choosing Luck at No. 1 overall, with owner Jim Irsay, who made the final call, privately expressing worry over Griffin’s long-term health.
Still, the differences between Griffin’s and Luck’s relative abilities were slight, and the army of former star quarterbacks and coaches who populate the various television networks as NFL analysts seemed unanimous in predicting great things for Griffin.
“He’s the complete package—plus,” said Steve Mariucci, the former 49ers and Lions head coach now working as an analyst for the NFL Network. “There are a lot of different ways we measure quarterbacks on and off the field, [and] this guy seems to have an ‘A’ grade in all of them.”
“He helped put the Baylor Bears on the map of college football, [and] I think he can do the same thing for the Redskins,” said Jon Gruden, the former Raiders and Buccaneers coach and current ESPN analyst. “He can revive the Redskins, as long as he stays healthy.”
Still, some analysts questioned whether Griffin could make the transition from Baylor’s wide-open, spread-style offense to a complex, pro-style passing game. The Baylor offense was unique in that it didn’t require an actual playbook—relying on multiple variations on the same handful of base formations and plays—but Griffin was quick to defend the offense to anyone who suggested it was simplistic.
“I’d like to sit down with them and show them how simple it is,” Griffin said to one such question at the combine. “It’s not a simple offense. It’s a good offense. It’s a really great offense, and it’s a quarterback-friendly offense. ‘Simple’ would not be the word to describe it.”
There was undoubtedly some stereotyping going on in the way Griffin was frequently described as “athletic” and in the suggestion that he would have trouble transitioning to a pro-style offense. He was certainly athletic, of course, but he was also an accomplished passer, as comfortable in the pocket on a straight drop-back as he was on the edges. When he was compared to other quarterbacks, it was always Michael Vick or Randall Cunningham or Cam Newton or, frequently in Texas, Vince Young—you know, because a black quarterback couldn’t possibly play like a white one. But in reality, Griffin’s father modeled his son largely on white passers of earlier generations, such as Joe Namath, Roger Staubach, Kenny Stabler, and Fran Tarkenton.
“People always talk about Randall Cunningham [as a comparison],” the elder Griffin said. “But when I developed Robert, I looked at guys like Namath, with his deep ball. Stabler—I liked his ability. I liked the calmness of Joe Montana. And Roger Staubach—what did they call him? ‘Roger the Dodger.’”
For his part, Griffin always shrugged off the stereotypical comparisons; he only bristled when it was suggested he was a run-first quarterback rather than a pass-first one, or when it was suggested his game wouldn’t translate to the NFL.
“Don’t let anybody tell you that your game doesn’t translate,” he said once. “I just try to make sure I don’t listen to too much and hear people say, ‘His game doesn’t translate.’ . . . It’s not a matter of the pro-style system only [fitting] a certain [type of] quarterback. Everybody’s got to make the same reads, and last time I checked I was able to throw the ball a little bit. So it’s not a problem to me. I don’t want teams to just entirely focus on my running ability and say, ‘He can’t throw’—because they’ll be mistaken.”
At the heart of the matter, where the issue of risk-aversion intersected with the differences of playing style, was a critical question: could Griffin—smaller and more mobile than Luck—survive a full NFL season without injury? Obviously, every quarterback faces the possibility of injury every time he receives a snap, but some in the league apparently saw a red flag in Griffin’s penchant for scrambling and the temptation that would be there for a team to call a bunch of designed runs for him.
“As for how much [Griffin] runs, and gets exposed to big hits, that’s going to be a balancing act in the NFL,” Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, the dean of American pro-football writers, opined the week of the draft. “Mike Shanahan would be foolish to tether to the pocket a man who was a semifinalist in the 400-meter hurdles at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials. But the one aspect that worried two personnel men last week was Griffin’s ability to protect himself outside of the pocket [from] the kind of scary hits that mobile quarterbacks often absorb. It’s a game of roulette.”
“There is that susceptibility when you’re a more mobile quarterback,” said NFL Network analyst and former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann—still revered for having taken the franchise to two Super Bowls—“that you could wind up taking that one shot that takes the best-laid plans of an entire organization and puts them on the shelf.”