The first step in rebuilding RG3 was to mend a broken heart.
For all the flash and dazzle and public bravado, Robert Griffin III is a sensitive young man barely two years removed from the protective cocoon of Baylor, his nearby Texas hometown of Copperas Cove and the Sunday night hair-braiding sessions with his mother Jackie they called “mommy time.” He longs to be liked. And last fall’s divorce from Redskins coach Mike Shanahan tore a hole inside him far more damaging than the shredded knee in the 2012 playoffs that seemed to ignite their breakup.
He grew up admiring Shanahan, then the ruddy, taciturn general of his beloved Denver Broncos, and the coach’s sudden disapproval was devastating. “Robert thought Mike hated him,” says a former Redskins teammate who did not want to speak on the record in part because he believes Griffin needs to get past Shanahan.
As Shanahan pushed him away with icy glares in the waning weeks of a ruined 2013 season and stories appeared saying the team’s coaches couldn’t work with him, Griffin struggled to understand why.
“It’s like he had an ex-girlfriend he loved or wanted to love and he can’t,” the former teammate adds.
Some of those who know Griffin from his college days say he is a uniquely honest man, incapable of the little lies people tell to get through social situations. They say his sincerity is one of his most endearing traits.
But it also means he does not mask his emotions well. Friends wish he would stop talking about Shanahan. That time has passed. And yet there festers inside him an urge to explain something. To make people understand. To let them know what it was like.
“For me it was just heartbreaking,” Griffin says. “You know with everything that happened—came into the league with—I was a huge Bronco fan, everybody knew that, and I had the coach of my dreams pick me in the draft.”
He stops. He repeats himself.
“Heartbreaking,” he says.
Griffin sits now on a leather couch inside a foyer that leads from the practice fields to the locker room at the Redskins headquarters. This should be a happy time for him. His right knee, the one with the torn ACL and LCL, is healed. He runs again with almost as much ease as during his rookie year. He has a head coach he adores in Jay Gruden in an environment as nurturing for a quarterback as perhaps any in the NFL.
He is slowly transitioning from being an option passer to a pocket passer—a move that will minimize his risk of a future knee injury. He is learning an offense that should favor his skills.
But the rejection by his football hero lingers. Vague references to it sprinkle in his words as if doing so will bring a sudden clarity. Earlier in the day, someone had asked him what he would say to Shanahan’s son, Kyle, the Redskins' old offensive coordinator—a man he was supposed to see at a preseason game—and Griffin fumbled for an answer. What do you say to the son of a coach you no longer trust?
As he sits on the couch, 2013 still seems like such a tangled mass of darkness: the blown-up knee, the frenetic sprint through rehab to make that first game, the implosion of a relationship with a coach that was supposed to last for years.
“I think if anyone had gone through that situation and not been hurt, then I don’t know if they would be human,” he says.
He is asked if he understands last year.
He shakes his head.
“No,” he says. “But right now I don’t need to try, you know? I don’t need to try and understand what happened last year. I need to continue to grow as a football player, as a man, as a person for this team. That’s been the goal this entire offseason. It’s not to try and understand what happened last year.
“Yeah, I put last year into perspective and have used it as fuel to move me forward, but I don’t need to try to understand why it happened because it’s kind of like trying to understand why there are so many planets out there, or is anyone else out there, or how did God build the human body. How did all this stuff happen? It can drive you crazy.”
Recovery came 368 days after the knee blew up. That was when the Redskins hired Gruden to replace Shanahan. In his time as an assistant in Tampa and Cincinnati and as a head coach in the Arena Football League and the defunct United Football League, the younger brother of Jon Gruden has became known around the NFL as a clever game-planner who found creative ways to use his players’ strengths.
One of the first things Gruden did was name Sean McVay offensive coordinator. The former Redskins' tight ends coach had a good relationship with RG3 and worked with Gruden in the past. McVay was so thrilled, he contacted Griffin the moment he found out.
“I thought it important that I reach out and say how excited I was to be able to work with him and continue to build the relationship that we previously had and let him know how excited I was to have the chance to get it on the right track here,” McVay says.
Griffin immediately liked his new coaches. More than some players, RG3 needs to trust the people who coach him, friends say. With Gruden that trust came quickly.
The new coach has a warmth about him and a quick sense of humor that Griffin enjoys. In their first several meetings, they didn’t even discuss specifics of the new quarterback-friendly offense Gruden was installing. Instead, they simply talked. Griffin liked that.
“Jay’s one of those guys, if you get around him, he has such a great way about himself that if you don’t like Jay Gruden you’re probably a messed-up guy, you know?” McVay says. “He’s hard not to like.”
Gruden did not hire a quarterbacks coach, essentially taking that role himself. He runs most of the quarterbacks meetings, making the connection with his passers a direct one and not funneled through a hierarchy of a coordinator and position coach.
Those who have been in them say the meetings are a free-flowing democracy—a vast change from Shanahan’s more dictatorial approach. Everybody is encouraged to give ideas. It reminded Griffin of the meetings he used to have at Baylor in which head coach Art Briles sat in all the quarterbacks conferences along with offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery.
“Anytime you get into a group you can kind of have groupthink—no one’s saying no, or no one’s saying yes and everyone’s saying no,” Griffin says, an obvious reference to Shanahan, whose employees feared him so much that even long after they have stopped working with him, their words quiver when his name is raised.
“There’s no groupthink going on with this staff,” Griffin says.
The new coaches loved the joy with which RG3 approached their first months here. Griffin bubbled with questions about the offense. They admired his energy. They appreciated the way he volunteered to help recruit free agents like DeSean Jackson, Jason Hatcher and Andre Roberts. And they were pleased to discover he is something of a football junkie with a deep understanding of other teams’ players and schemes.
“I think he’s done a good job of embracing Jay’s approach, of what we do philosophically, and that’s exciting to see,” McVay says.
In turn, Gruden has been authentic in his assessments of Griffin’s transition to a pocket passer. He notes publicly his quarterback’s successes in mastering new fundamentals while simultaneously grasping a different offense. And he freely acknowledges the things Griffin does that frustrate him, like an occasional insistence on trying to make every play in training camp a touchdown or challenging tacklers rather than avoiding contact.
Nothing is hidden. Everything is clear.
“I think (RG3) feels a fresh start with a new staff,” backup quarterback Kirk Cousins had said a few days before. “He likes this staff.”
On the couch, Griffin nods.
“To have them is a blessing,” he says.
Early in the spring, Griffin flew to Phoenix to work with Terry Shea, a former college head coach and NFL quarterback coach who spent several weeks preparing him for the 2012 draft. He needed to work on his passing, and he brought with him a handful of teammates, including receivers Andre Roberts, Pierre Garcon and Santana Moss, along with tight end Jordan Reed and running backs Chris Thompson and Evan Royster.
Every day for a week Shea took Griffin through a series of drills. They started at 8 a.m. on a private turf field—just coach and passer—focusing for an hour on RG3’s lower body. In the months after his knee injury, Griffin stopped setting his feet correctly, forcing his throws to sail too high.
Shea showed Griffin where to plant his feet, how to move them as he waited in the pocket and what way to move his hips. Eventually they worked on Griffin’s shoulders, locking in the right angle for throwing.
“We didn’t even need a football,” Shea said.
Later in the day, when the Redskins players joined Griffin, Shea put the quarterback in a variety of different positions, having him throw passes while on one knee and then both knees. Sometimes RG3 had to stand perfectly still while flinging throws to his teammates.
When simulating routes Washington might use in the season, Shea demanded that Griffin move his feet on every third pass.
“I couldn’t believe how hard he threw while on his knees,” Thompson says.
But Shea pushed RG3 to do more than throw hard. If anything, the quarterback had been too reliant on his fastball. A big part of being a great passer in the NFL is an ability to change speeds—lobbing some balls while firing others—Shea told him.
Even in the ruins of last year, Griffin’s throws were rockets. But not every situation calls for a bullet. Shea forced him to lighten some of his passes.
At first RG3 struggled, yet as the days went by he improved. Shea has always marveled at Griffin's ability to grasp concepts quickly, often understanding them completely the first time they were introduced. This was no different.
Shea could see Griffin committing the new passing motions to his muscle memory until they became almost natural. After a second session in July, held at a high school near the Redskins' facility, Shea was confident RG3 could make any of the new throws with accuracy.
Or as tight end Logan Paulsen, who did the July workouts with Griffin, said one day this training camp: “He’s matured in how he throws the ball. Not every (pass) is so freaking hard.”
As much as the week in Phoenix was designed to rebuild Griffin the passer, those who were there sensed it was about something more for him. It was almost like he needed them—not as pass-catchers, but as teammates. In the chaos that followed his knee injury, some of those connections were not as tight.
His rehabilitation in the winter of 2013 kept him away from the team facility at a time when he might normally be there. The losing and his struggles and the public squabble with Shanahan left everybody uncomfortable. Phoenix brought a chance to hang out as friends.
“I think he just wanted some guys around him,” Roberts says.
Griffin planned Phoenix carefully. He wanted he and his teammates to do something as a group after each day’s workout, but he fretted about coming off too heavy-handed by dictating the schedule. He asked a woman at his agency, Creative Artists Agency (CAA), for help in preparing a list of potential activities, then let the players pick what they wanted to do.
They chose things like bowling, an exhibition baseball game and a trip to Dave & Buster's. The most memorable might have been the afternoon they spent playing paintball, if for no other reason than Griffin showed up in the blazing Arizona heat clad in Army fatigues and then stalked his teammates through the bushes like a special ops soldier.
“To me (Phoenix) was an important moment,” Griffin says, sitting on the couch. Across the entryway players burst through the swinging doors to the weight room, letting blasts of music leak through the opening. His eyes follow them.
“I think more so it was just stuff I like to do,” he continues. “I like to do that with the guys. I like to go out and have fun with them when we get a chance to go out there to a different city and be there for a week to focus on football, then in the afternoon we get to focus on different events, that’s stuff I like to do. And for all of them to show up, it lets me know they respect me as a quarterback, as a leader, but that they also like to be around the guy who is throwing them the ball.”
He talks in long paragraphs, with sentences that bounce from fragments to rambling. They dance in a Texas twang. To spend a day with Griffin is to understand he is a man who thinks…a lot. Those who have been around him rave about his mind. He laughs. He plays jokes. He works hard at trying to be one of the guys.
But he is also a man who keeps an account of his slights. He still remembers the elementary school administrator who told him in first grade that he would never amount to anything. And he remembers, too, how years later she asked him to speak at her retirement.
He has never forgotten that 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh once recruited he and Andrew Luck to Stanford with the idea of playing both, and he makes sure to leave the implication that he would have been the one who would have ultimately won the job.
Recently Griffin posted the following on his Twitter account:
They doubted in High School They doubted a turnaround at @Baylor They doubted a Heisman was possible Keep doubting. It's nothing New.— Robert Griffin III (@RGIII) August 20, 2014
This came on a day RG3 had been besieged with questions about his failure to slide on several occasions during the Redskins' second preseason game. These were legitimate queries given Griffin’s inability to avoid contact in his brief NFL career.
And his digital response ignited another outcry from a public already weary from the deluge of cryptic innuendo that filled his and Shanahan’s comments the previous year.
“People say: ‘Why is this guy always tweeting?’” one NFL personnel executive said the following morning. “He’s giving all these answers. Who asked the questions?”
Because he is an instant celebrity, having gone from anonymous to the Heisman Trophy to the top of the NFL draft to Offensive Rookie of the Year to the pandemonium of last season in 33 months, he seems uncomfortable with the public judgment that haunts the famous.
Some embrace it. Some learn to tolerate it. Some shut themselves away from the glare. Griffin isn’t really in any of these places; he's eager to explain himself but wary of the churn that comes with the very mention of his name.
“I just think I’m the easy guy, the easy target,” he says. “I’m the one that gets the clicks when you’re on ESPN and you’re watching it. ‘Hey, let's talk bad about RG3.’ That’s just the way it is now.”
Unlike Luck, to whom he forever will be linked as the first two picks in 2012, Griffin likes showing his personality. He enjoys doing interviews. He likes being on Twitter. And while he will not directly blame Shanahan for controlling his access to the media his first two seasons, he suggests as much by saying: “That’s not how things were done the first two years.”
This summer he asked to be more visible, working out an arrangement with the team's Senior Vice President Tony Wyllie to casually meet the media every day at his locker. A part of Griffin’s rebuilding is controlling the message of his career. “If I could sit here and have a conversation and not have anything twisted or turned or pinned against me or pinned against anyone else, I think that’s a good thing,” he says.
There's so much he wants you to understand. He wants you to know he didn’t start his first high school football game but how he worked to be sure he started the second. He wants you to realize how certain he was that he would be in this position back when he was a freshman at Baylor and far better known for track than football. He wants you to learn what his coaches have already discovered: That he grasps exactly what every other NFL team wants to do with its defense.
“Yes, I’m obsessed with football,” he says. “People don’t look at it that way. They think ‘Oh man, let's look at the commercials, let's look at the endorsement deals.’ All that stuff is a means to an end. God blessed me with that so I could take care of my family. That’s how I look at that.”
On the couch, outside the locker room, Griffin pauses.
“There’s such a negative connotation when people say ‘building your brand,’ but it’s not about building your brand. It’s just about having people relate to who you are,” he says. “I’m not going to say: ‘I like Cheetos’ if I don’t like Cheetos. I’m not going to say things because I want the money.
“You know why I signed with Subway? Because I ate Subway every day before I went to practice with my teammates. That’s why I signed with Subway. People say: ‘Oh, it’s because of the money,’ but like I said that’s a means to the end. I created that relationship because it was a real relationship.”
Rebuilding is slow. Finding himself as a pocket passer has been as challenging as finding his public voice. A languid preseason has brought doubts. Joe Theismann, who won a Super Bowl as Redskins quarterback, said on television that if Gruden were running an open competition for the job Cousins would be winning it. A few days later, ESPN analyst, Ron Jaworski, himself a Super Bowl quarterback, said RG3's "mechanics have regressed."
“Some of these route combinations are new to him,” Jay Gruden says. “He’s got to trust the fact that he’s got to believe what he sees, but he’s got to see it first. In order to see it, he’s got to have some protection, he’s got to keep his eyes on the right spot, and go through his progressions and make his decisions and get the ball out of his hands.
“It will come. He’s got the ability to do it, he’s got the smarts to do it, he’s got the wants to do it, he’s just got to do it.”
One team’s executive said RG3 looked cautious, as if still concerned for his knee. A professional scout suggested Griffin is going through the normal adjustment a quarterback faces with a new coach and new offense. He likened him to San Diego’s Philip Rivers, who struggled early last season to master a similarly quarterback-friendly offense brought by new coach Mike McCoy. By season’s end, Rivers led the NFL, having completed 69.5 percent of his passes.
Of course, Rivers wasn’t also learning to be a pocket passer while getting over the first great heartbreak of his career.
Griffin shifts on the couch.
“At the end of the day it’s just football,” he says. “I like to think that with everything that I’ve had to go through that me, personally, I have become a better man, a better husband, and I think that also translates onto the football field.”
He stands. Soon he is gone, away from the memory of a season lost and into the locker room, where he can begin again.
Les Carpenter is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He has written for Yahoo! Sports, The Washington Post and The Seattle Times. Follow him on Twitter @LesCarpenter