Why Robert Griffin III Is a Worthwhile Gamble for the Cleveland Browns

In signing quarterback Robert Griffin III, the Cleveland Browns are bringing on a risky asset who could completely flop. And that's exactly what they should be looking for.

Say what you want about the Cleveland Browns, but at least they're never boring.

In their perpetual pursuit of something resembling competency at quarterback, the Browns landed themselves one of the most polarizing players in the NFL in Robert Griffin III.

What could possibly go wrong?

Griffin hasn't started a game since 2014, and he hasn't looked like the former second overall pick since his rookie season. But when you're a team that hasn't made the playoffs since 2002, risk can be a blessing.

Let's take a look at Griffin's time in the nation's capital to see why he's a guy who could be worth that risk. Then, we'll investigate the Browns' current quarterbacking situation to see if this is a match destined for greatness or just the next failed attempt at returning to relevancy.

Rookie Superiority

We all know that Griffin's tenure in Washington ended poorly, but those down times have made some forget just how truly great he was in his first season.

We can quantify this using numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP). This is the metric we use to track the efficiency of players based on the expected points they add to a team's offense throughout the course of a season.

Here's an example. It's 3rd and 6, and a quarterback completes a seven-yard pass. That's going to increase the team's expected point total for the drive, giving him positive NEP. If he makes that same seven-yard completion on 3rd and 8, though, the team will likely have to punt. That's going to take a hit on the team's expected points, even though the completion went for the same number of yards.

When we use this data, we can see how talented Griffin was back in 2012.

From 2000 to 2015, there were 45 different quarterbacks who recorded at least 200 drop backs in their rookie season. None of them racked up more Total NEP than RGIII.

Total NEP is a stat that will give an advantage to guys like Griffin because it factors in expected points added on rushing attempts. However, his edge over the rest of the competition is simply grotesque.

The table below shows the top five rookies in this stat since 2000. Passing NEP per drop back does not include rushing totals, but it will deduct any points lost as the result of a sack.

Quarterback Season Total NEP Passing NEP/Drop Back
Robert Griffin III 2012 132.92 0.17
Russell Wilson 2012 112.82 0.20
Cam Newton 2011 110.21 0.10
Matt Ryan 2008 94.65 0.20
Jameis Winston 2015 85.02 0.13

Griffin's Total NEP output from that season was 17.82% higher than Russell Wilson's total, and only one other quarterback had more than 100 Total NEP. This isn't just a good rookie season; it's historic.

Griffin is an outlier from the rest of the chart in another way, though. He's the only one who isn't currently still starting for his original team. Wilson and Cam Newton have both gone to Super Bowls, and Matt Ryan has finished in the top 10 in Total NEP six different seasons. What went wrong?

The fall from grace was fairly dramatic for Griffin, though he was at least still passable in 2013. The next year was a completely different story.

Season Total NEP Passing NEP/Drop Back
2012 132.92 0.17
2013 28.47 0.04
2014 -37.24 -0.15

During that 2014 season, only rookie Blake Bortles was worse on a per-drop back basis than Griffin was. That was only a year after he finished 20th out of 39 in the same stat, which, though it wasn't as good as 2012, is still acceptable. It wasn't until that third year that Griffin became the broken commodity he's considered to be now.

What this means is that, for 920 drop backs, Griffin was either a great or an average quarterback. It took only 247 to erase any shred of optimism completely. Is it possible that we've written this guy off too quickly?

That appears to be what the Browns are banking on. It's not often you can land upside that high without giving up any sort of compensation outside of some cap space. And when you look at the Browns' situation, you can see why they'll take any upside they can find.

17 Years of Misery

The Browns are the butt of countless jokes on Twitter about their inability to find a quarterback to lead the franchise. Those tweets are only sad because of how ridiculously true they are.

As mentioned in our look at the Browns' mistakes in drafting quarterbacks, the team hasn't had a signal caller in the top 10 in Total NEP since they returned to Cleveland in 1999. The best finish over that span was Derek Anderson's 11th-place mark in 2007. That's 17 years without having even an above-average season.

Of the quarterbacks the Browns have drafted in the first round since then, the best finish in Total NEP has been 23rd, a feat achieved by both Brady Quinn and Tim Couch. Brandon Weeden never got higher than 28th, and Johnny Manziel was 31st this season.

All of this is compounded when you realize how poor the current assets surrounding the quarterback are. Only one team (the Tennessee Titans) lost more NEP this year due to sacks than the Browns, an ailment that dinged both Manziel and Josh McCown. They've lost right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, center Alex Mack, and wide receiver Travis Benjamin to free agency. And this is coming from a team that finished 3-13 in 2015.

Strangely enough, that's not a bad thing in this situation. The string of putridness and this heavy turnover have put the Browns in a position where risk isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, when it comes with the potential of a guy like Griffin, it's probably the optimal solution.

This gives the Browns flexibility. They could still take either Carson Wentz or Jared Goff with the second overall pick in the NFL draft. They could trade down a bit, accumulate additional draft picks, and potentially still get one of those two. Or they could forgo the position entirely and address one of their other many needs. Having both Griffin and McCown on the roster gives the team more flexibility than they would have if it were just McCown. It likely would make most sense to pick a quarterback still, but having more flexibility is never a bad thing.


Some may end up asking why the Browns would want to take a risk on a guy who has been as bad as Griffin recently. However, the question instead should be this: why not?

At this point, the Browns have nothing to lose. They're a team that needs a quarterback, and they're not likely to contend in 2016. The worst-case scenario is that they duplicate 2015 and end up back where they started. The best-case scenario is something far beyond that.

Griffin showed in his rookie season that he can be a top-level option in the NFL. Even the year after that, he was still at least functional at the position. His sample size of competency is far larger than his sample of wretchedness, and that competency was pretty darn sweet. If he can regain that, then the Browns may end up having too many decent quarterbacks on their roster if they end up taking one in the first round. I think that's a problem they'd be willing to have.

It's entirely possible that Griffin ends up struggling again in his new home. He could actually be a broken entity that will never return to being the player he was when he first entered the league. But when you're the Browns and Griffin, you've got nothing to lose, and this is a gamble that appears well worth the potential cost.