Did Washington Doom Itself by Going All-In on Robert Griffin III?

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Did Washington Doom Itself by Going All-In on Robert Griffin III?
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Imagine there's something out there that could make your career.

With the right tool, the right software or the right employee, you'd look smart for the next decade. Raises, promotions, bonuses, stock options, your own business, magazine features, TV interviews—all because you got your hands on a magic something that made the hard parts of your job easy and the easy parts of your job fun.

How much would you pay for that? What would you give up? How steep would the cost have to be to outweigh the benefits?

In the run-up to the 2012 NFL draft, head coach Mike Shanahan, general manager Bruce Allen and the rest of the Washington leadership had to ask themselves exactly that.

Of course, they paid the price: They sacrificed the No. 6 and No. 39 overall picks in the 2012 draft, the No. 22 pick in the 2013 draft and a possible top-five pick in the 2014 draft.

As a rookie, Robert Griffin III led them on a surprising run to the NFC East division championship. But after a hard-to-watch knee injury in the playoffs and Griffin's wire-to-wire disaster of a 2013 season, all is nearly lost.

Washington has been sapped of top draft picks, has no cap room and will be hard-pressed to get better next season. Shanahan's job is in doubt, as discussed by Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio; Allen's may be too. 

Was it worth it?

 

All or Nothing

It's become evident that the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and football is becoming a pass-first game. Single-season passing records, franchise passing records and previously untouchable streaks are falling left and right.

As I wrote earlier this season, NFL offenses are squeezing almost as many plays into a game as they ever have and gaining far more yards from those plays than ever before. The league-wide run/pass balance is much more heavily tilted toward "pass" than ever—and the trend is accelerating.

Ty Schalter/Bleacher Report

In the 2012 draft, NFL coaches and executives had a chilling reality check. The Indianapolis Colts, a perennial playoff team and title contender, lost Peyton Manning for an entire season. They instantly became the laughingstock of the league.

Then-Colts general manager Bill Polian went from being hailed as a "role model of roster rebuilding" by The Tampa Tribune to being fired. Without his franchise quarterback, Polian's Colts went from 10-6 to 2-14. Polian, his top assistant (son Chris) and the entire coaching staff were sent packing.

It became apparent to NFL observers everywhere: Either you have a quarterback who'll make you look like a genius year-in, year-out, or you've got nothing.

 

Heavy Is the Head That Wears the Crown

In an NFL where the quarterback has never ruled more absolutely, Washington giving up a king's ransom of draft picks for Griffin makes sense.

Shanahan, who's made a career out of building with spare parts around a supremely talented quarterback, clearly viewed Griffin as the quarterback who could take him back to the mountaintop—thus securing his Hall of Fame legacy as the sixth coach to take two different teams to the Super Bowl.

Just after consummating the trade, though, the NFL informed Washington the league would be levying back-to-back $18 million cap penalties in 2012 and 2013.

This, combined with the lack of top draft picks, has made it almost impossible to surround Griffin with talent.

Let's look at just how many holes there are on Washington's roster. Using Pro Football Reference's conventional statistics (points scored or allowed, rushing or passing yards gained or allowed, sacks or sacks allowed), Pro Football Focus team grades (subscription required) and Football Outsiders stats (DVOA, ALY), here's how Washington stacks up against the rest of the NFL:

How Washington Stacks Up, By the Numbers
Metric Overall Pass Rush Pass Block Run Block Overall Run Def. Pass Rush Pass Cov.
Conventional 19th 16th 1st 22nd - 31st 14th 20th 19th
Pro Football Focus 8th 26th 3rd 5th 7th 30th 30th 14th 31st
Football Outsiders 19th 25th 4th 26th 16th 26th 18th 9th 27th

Pro Football Reference

Across the board, Washington has a middling overall offense, a mediocre-to-poor passing offense and an outstanding run game.

The offensive line metrics vary widely, and there is no conventional measure of run blocking, but it's safe to say Griffin has been sacked often this season. The high Pro Football Focus pass-block grade suggests the offensive line might be blocking well, but Griffin is taking a lot of sacks anyway.

On defense, the news is almost universally bad. Washington has the second-worst scoring defense in football and scrapes the bottom of the barrel in PFF overall defense grades and FO's defensive DVOA. The run defense is middling-to-poor, though both advanced sites think well of Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan and Co.'s pass-rushing.

Though Washington is 19th in the NFL with 11 interceptions, PFF and FO both rank its secondary near the bottom of the NFL.

 

The Grass Is Always Greener

What if Allen and Shanahan stayed put?

The Rams picked up defensive tackle Michael Brockers, cornerback Janoris Jenkins and (after another trade down) outside linebacker Alec Ogletree. Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), all three have been the Rams' best-graded players at their positions.

Brockers' plus-1.9 is the only positive overall grade of the three—but they'd all be the best-graded players at their position in Washington's defense too (projecting Brockers to 3-4 DE and Ogletree to 3-4 ILB).

Then there's the matter of Washington's 2014 pick. As of right now, Washington's one of five teams with just three wins. It's entirely possible that St. Louis could end up with a top-five pick—and wouldn't it be ironic if the Rams landed a franchise quarterback?

There's still a way out of this for Shanahan and Allen, though. Griffin clearly has superlative physical talent, and he's already proven he can produce when he's fully healthy (and helped with heavy doses of play action and read-option).

If Allen can get even one playmaking receiver and improve the defense just a little, if Shanahan can successfully blend the simple offense Griffin ran so well in 2012 with his time-tested system, or if Griffin can take a big step forward in 2014, there's no reason to believe the steep price Washington paid won't be worth it.

Those are three huge questions. 

At this point, it looks like Shanahan and Allen traded their careers for a magic bean. They'd better hope it grows into a giant beanstalk.

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