Can Robert Griffin III Still Thrive in the NFL?
Robert Griffin III spending any NFL season in relative anonymity was something unfathomable after his rookie year.
The Washington quarterback took the league by storm during that 2012 season, becoming an instant star, one that looked like it would be around for quite a while. Three years later, Griffin cleaning out his Washington locker for what should be the last time made national headlines.
In a way it makes complete sense.
Kirk Cousins, drafted the same year, will be coming off his rookie contract and, as the current starter in Washington, is likely to get a long-term extension to keep that title. While Griffin had his fifth-year option picked up before the start of the season, it wouldn’t come close to financial sense for Washington to keep both Cousins on his new contract and Griffin at the $16.15 option price tag.
Yet still it seems surreal.
You can be of the opinion Griffin was not really as great as his star power was perceived, but to be active for only one game in 2015 and to be headed toward a new team for his second contract is something no one could have predicted.
How we got here exactly is still a bit of a mystery, and where Griffin can go from here remains unknown.
Trying to put the pieces of this puzzle together still only does so much to create the full picture.
A Falling Star
By any account, Griffin’s rookie season was highly successful; for this account, we’re going to use our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric.
NEP measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to perform in each scenario using historical data.
As a passer Griffin was among the league’s best in 2012, tied for seventh among quarterbacks in Passing NEP per play. His ability on the ground, combined with the efficient passing, made him one of the league’s most dangerous playmakers.
During 2012 only Cam Newton (128) rushed more times than Griffin (115), but Griffin led all quarterbacks in Rushing NEP, and he finished third behind Andrew Luck and Jay Cutler -- both of whom rushed much less than Griffin -- in Rushing NEP per attempt.
Griffin’s success during his rookie season came, in part, from an offensive system that meshed pro-style concepts with those similar to what the quarterback ran at Baylor. There was a heavy dose of read-option in the run game, and the passing game involved some quick reads, along with packaged plays that allowed different options for Griffin to throw.
It appeared to be the perfect system to ease Griffin into the NFL game, and it was highly successful -- Washington was third in Adjusted NEP per play on offense that year -- until Griffin’s knee injury in the playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks.
Of course this is where the career trajectory takes a downturn. Griffin rehabbed enough to come back from the torn ACL in time for Week 1 of 2013 -- maybe too early, maybe not -- but it was clear his game wasn’t quite the same. In two fewer games played, Griffin dropped back to pass 66 more times and ran 34 fewer times than the previous season.
While it was a clear drop off from his rookie year, Griffin’s performance wasn’t as terrible as perceived in his second season. Griffin ranked 21st among quarterbacks in Passing NEP per drop back (0.04). His tally was a notch below the average among 45 quarterbacks who dropped back at least 100 times that season (0.06). Again, that's not awful, but it's also not to the standard set in his first season.
The biggest trouble for Griffin then came in 2014 after Mike Shanahan was fired and Jay Gruden took over as the head coach in Washington.
Griffin started just seven games while dealing with an ankle injury that caused him to miss Weeks 3 through 8. In his time playing, though, Griffin took another step backwards, measuring as one of the league’s worst quarterbacks on a per play basis in 2014.
Of the 43 quarterbacks who dropped back at least 100 times, only Blake Bortles (-0.18) and Michael Vick (-0.23) had a lower Passing NEP per drop back than Griffin (-0.15). Once a dynamic playmaker with his feet, Griffin’s rushing turned detrimental to the team with negative total and per rush value on his 36 attempts.
One Man's Trash...?
So what we have from Griffin during his playing time is a season worth of above average performance, three-quarters of a league average quarterback and an injury-riddled half season as one of the league’s worst quarterbacks with the trend line in those years going the wrong way.
This, of course, leaves some serious questions about what will be next for Griffin’s career.
In his favor are the facts that he’s a quarterback, a former first-round pick and at one time showed excellence on the field. In the NFL, players get multiple chances when that third qualifier is optional.
During the 2015 season a combination of NFL teams played Austin Davis, Zach Mettenberger, Brandon Weeden, Jimmy Clausen and Matt Cassel all, for over 100 dropbacks. There’s certainly room for Griffin on an NFL roster; in what capacity remains to be seen.
There are some legitimate reasons for why Griffin may have struggled in years two and three. His second year was coming off incredible turnaround from the ACL injury, and in 2014, the ankle appeared to be a lingering issue.
Where Griffin goes next -- and whether he succeeds -- could be highly dependent on the organization and coaching staff knowing what they have with this type of player. It could also involve Griffin figuring out what type of player he is now, too.
Those option and packaged plays were what Griffin excelled at during his peak, and routinely, they opened up bigger passing plays later in games while linebackers and safeties were concerned with what Griffin could do if he kept the ball. Here’s the type of play Griffin and the offense ran so well, from his first NFL start. (Video from NFL Game Pass.)
A common complaint about Griffin after Gruden took over was the fit between the quarterback and the offensive system, but that argument might not hold much ground. Gruden’s time as head coach has shown an ability to be adaptable and fit some passing schemes to his players. Hell, his offense just saw Kirk Cousins rank seventh in Passing NEP per drop back this season.
There was a more traditional offense run in Washington during 2014, but it was not void of some concepts that helped Griffin be successful under Shanahan. Take this play from Week 10 against the Buccaneers.
It’s the first play of the game, clearly a scripted play to help get Griffin in a groove to start the game. It’s a packaged play, and Griffin reads it to hit the tight end, has a brief window, but double clutches, runs into pressure, scrambles then throws low to his checkdown receiver, which leads to a tipped interception.In a play called specifically to get Griffin in a rhythm, he never looked comfortable.
Maybe that was due to the injury; maybe it was shaky confidence after the other performance struggles. That’s something we’ll probably never know. What is going to propel what happens next is whether that timid Griffin still exists, or if there's more flashes of the 2012 quarterback.
Griffin basically took a redshirt year in 2015. He’s now a full season removed from the ankle injuries, two from the ACL tear. He should be completely healthy.
At one point, there was a pretty darn good quarterback coming out, and those tools should still be there. We’ll now have to wait to see if those tools or that quarterback ever resurface.
As strange as it may have seemed even before this season started, no iteration of that quarterback will be seen again in Washington.