Those dual issues will have a significant impact on owner Daniel Snyder after the season, when he decides what to do about the strained relationship between his star quarterback and coach Mike Shanahan. The issues have come to a head in the past two weeks and collided with the similarly strong-willed coach.
Griffin’s stubbornness was crystallized by a moment in a recent game. After he threw an errant pass and the offensive series ended, he came to the sideline and talked with quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur, who was in the coaches booth (not on the sideline as originally reported here).
LaFleur, a former quarterback who never played in the NFL but has coached in the league for six years, began explaining to Griffin that part of the problem with the throw was his poor footwork, an issue that many observers around the league have noted about Griffin as he has struggled this season. As LaFleur continued to talk, Griffin grew impatient and brushed off the instruction.
“I just have to make that throw,” Griffin said, according to two team sources who were aware of the conversation. The reaction was not considered mean-spirited, but it was dismissive and spoke to the larger issue of how difficult Griffin has become to coach this season as he has struggled with physical limitations from his knee injury at the end of the 2012 playoffs.
In addition, Griffin’s father has increasingly become the kind of nuisance that some people warned NFL executives about before the 2012 draft. In recent weeks, according to two sources close to the situation, the elder Griffin has politicked Snyder to hire Baylor coach Art Briles, who coached the younger Griffin to a Heisman Trophy, to replace Shanahan.
That has come on the heels of the elder Griffin privately second-guessing Shanahan on his play-calling from the playoff game last year when his son suffered a significant knee injury, according to The Washington Post's Mike Wise. One source who has known the Griffin family for at least six years recently compared the elder Griffin to the late Earl Woods, Tiger Woods' father and a man who many believe lived in the reflective glory of his son’s accomplishments.
The elder Griffin declined to comment on the situation when contacted via text message.
“I am sorry,” Griffin’s father wrote. “No comments (are) necessary.”
To those who know the father and son well, none of that behavior is surprising. Griffin’s father was something of a stage dad at Baylor, talking to the media, doing videos on how he trained his son and even going as far as stretching his son in the locker room before games. Recently, he was seen in the Washington locker room talking to his son after a loss.
Multiple team sources said they believe the father’s influence and interference have made this season more difficult.
Or as a team source put it: “Robert is not a bad kid. That’s not it at all. But he doesn’t listen right now. You can be Tom Brady or Peyton Manning or the greatest athlete in the world, whoever. But if your footwork isn’t right, you’re going to miss. The ball is going to sail or you’re going to throw it in the ground or whatever. It just doesn’t work.”
That same team source agreed that Griffin has the kind of athletic confidence/arrogance that causes him to ignore the rules of physics.
In Griffin’s rookie season in 2012, precision accuracy wasn’t as critical because his speed forced defenses to play him differently and opposing teams hadn’t scouted him thoroughly. Defenses had to play man-to-man coverage in the secondary and bring extra defenders up front to deal with Griffin’s running ability. His reads were much easier.
But as Griffin has struggled to regain his world-class speed and teams have come up with ways to defend him, there has been a significant decline in his performance across the board. His accuracy (from 65.6 to 60.1 percent), TD-to-interception ratio (20-5 to 16-12) and quarterback rating (102.4 to 82.2) have all declined sharply.
“You could see this coming in the offseason with the way he was working,” a team source said this week. “It’s not that he wasn’t working hard. He was. He was working to come back as quickly as he could. But he wasn’t working on the things to become a better (pocket) quarterback. ... Now, we’ve gotten this deep in the season, and he’s still doing things wrong, like his footwork.”
Shanahan, a man who once cut Denver team captain Michael Dean Perry in the midst of the 1997 season and went on to win back-to-back Super Bowls immediately thereafter, indicated the same thing in more measured terms last week.
“The biggest growth in a quarterback is usually between Year 1 and Year 2,” Shanahan said in a phone interview. “You have the opportunity to go back and look at the things you didn’t do well, learn from them, fix them and really digest how the NFL game works. That’s a huge step in the learning curve, and Robert didn’t really have that because he was working so hard on his rehab from his knee.”
That has fed Shanahan’s decision to sit Griffin for the rest of the season. Shanahan said he sees all the hits Griffin is taking, which can be partially attributed to his lack of understanding of what to do in the offense in certain situations. Finally, playing Kirk Cousins could raise Cousins’ value in trade this offseason as Washington deals with not having a first-round pick in the 2014 draft (a pick that will likely be one of the top five).
Cousins got off to a strong start toward that end by completing 29 of 45 passes for 381 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions in Sunday's 27-26 loss to Atlanta. That game matches up with just about any performance by Griffin this season.
Furthermore, the logic of whether to have Griffin play comes down to whether he’ll listen, two team sources said.
“I hear people say that he should just continue to play. But if you just keep doing the wrong things, you’re not getting better,” one of the team sources said. “You just get more accustomed to doing the wrong things.”
While this gets to the core of the growing pains with Griffin, it doesn’t unravel the tangled relationship between Griffin, Shanahan and Snyder. Snyder has played a role in empowering Griffin’s ego by becoming overly friendly with the quarterback and even inviting him to his home for Thanksgiving, among other instances.
That relationship, according to members of the staff, has undermined Shanahan’s ability to coach Griffin. So did Shanahan’s decision to leave Griffin in Washington’s playoff game last season against Seattle. Griffin, who was obviously hobbled, eventually couldn’t continue and subsequently had surgery to repair a torn ACL in his knee. Shanahan has been continuously second-guessed for that decision.
Now, Shanahan is pulling Griffin at a time when the quarterback is relatively healthy. It's a fact that has confused Griffin even more, fracturing the relationship to the point that the two aren’t talking, according to the NFL.com's Ian Rapoport.
But as Shanahan pointed out last week, he only sat Griffin after consulting with Snyder.
“I could have done this without discussing it with Dan, but I wanted him to be a part of a decision this important and understand where I was coming from,” Shanahan said.
Thus, the question now is whether Snyder agrees with some in the organization that he needs to deconstruct some of Griffin’s confidence/arrogance before building it back up. And if so, Snyder needs to decide if Shanahan, who only has one year left on his contract, will be the coach to do the project.