Griffin was a spectacular talent, and the team had struggled to find a long-term answer at quarterback. It was a stiff price to pay, but having a franchise quarterback to build around seemed worth it.
Pictures were snapped, socks were worn, endorsement deals were in the works, and it looked like the future was on its way to FedEx Field.
Then, Washington drafted Kirk Cousins.
After giving up its 2012 second-round pick and using a third-rounder on offensive lineman Josh LeRibeus, the club spent its fourth-rounder on a second rookie quarterback. That did not make sense.
Was Cousins a hedge against the all-in bet on Griffin? An insurance policy in case the athletic Griffin got hurt? Trade bait? Why would the team waste one of its few remaining useful picks on a player to compete with, instead of support, RGIII?
Ever since, the two quarterbacks' fortunes have waxed and waned in opposition to each other. When one shines, the other is in shadow. When one stumbles, the other stands tall. At the end of the 2014 preseason, the future for both quarterbacks isn't any clearer than when they were drafted.
Just the Preseason?
Every football fan in The District—and the world, for that matter—knows how exciting, dynamic and explosive RGIII was in his rookie season.
They know the Shanahans (head coach Mike and offensive coordinator Kyle) crafted an offense for Griffin's rookie year that closely resembled the one he ran at Baylor. They also know how ragged he was run in the postseason, his avoidable knee injury and quick rehab, and how unrecognizably timid and ineffective he was in the wake of it all.
With Griffin fully recovered, but new head coach Jay Gruden importing a more conventional NFL offense, it was an open question as to whether Griffin would look like he did as a rookie phenom or as a slumping sophomore.
Three games, 20 attempts, no touchdowns, two interceptions and four sacks later, we have an answer.
Whenever NFL analysts point out flaws in the preseason, fans rush to their favorite team or player's defense—it's just the preseason, after all. It's true, preseason football is hard to evaluate. It's a tricky mix of starters and backups, vanilla schemes and unusual play-calling.
The key is to evaluate players as you do when they're coming into the draft. How do they look? How sharp are they? Do their tools pop on film? Are they the driving force of their unit or just a cog in the machine?
In the all-important third preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens, Griffin looked a lot more like a fourth-rounder than a No. 2 overall pick.
He completed five of his eight attempts for just 20 yards (2.5 yards-per-attempt average). Not only did he throw a pick and get sacked three times, but he struggled with accuracy and ball placement all night. He had a second interception called back on a defensive penalty and had a surefire pick-six dropped by Ravens cornerback Dominique Franks.
He also made a surfeit of rookie mistakes. He fumbled a shotgun snap, tripped over his lineman's feet on a toss and hung onto the ball way too long. He scrambled when he didn't need to, didn't do much on the ground anyway, missed open receivers, threw it to covered targets and never looked like a threat to make plays.
Cousins took over and went 14-of-20 for 122 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
The Real Thing
It's fun to watch preseason games and project forward, but the time for daydreaming is over. With the fourth preseason game complete, everything will soon count. The thought experiment of benching RGIII is a non-starter.
Cousins, when he's played in real games, hasn't looked ready either. In five games in 2013, he threw four touchdowns against seven interceptions and accrued a passer efficiency rating of 58.4. It's one thing to look effective against second- and third-stringers in exhibitions and another versus starters in real games.
There are reasons Griffin was drafted so much higher than Cousins, and they have a lot to do with why Griffin's been to the Pro Bowl and been named AP Offensive Rookie of the Year. He's proved he can do it with the right system and support. Cousins hasn't proved anything, and his upside isn't in the same stratosphere as Griffin's.
Yet, in 2013, Shanahan shut down Griffin early to spotlight Cousins.
Dan Steinberg of The Washington Post transcribed Shanahan's rationale, as given to ESPN 980:
If he lights it up, hey, maybe we can bring a first-round draft choice back to this organization, and say 'hey, who are we gonna take in the first round?' And I think by him playing and Robert not playing, it gives us a chance to have a few options for our organization that we wouldn’t normally have, and the safety of our quarterback going into the offseason is preserved.
That is not how you talk about a backup, and that's certainly not how you discuss a franchise quarterback you spent a dragon's hoard to acquire.
Let's be real: The NFL isn't a strict meritocracy. Draft and contract status absolutely matter when it comes to starting decisions. Even if Washington didn't effectively have three first-round draft picks, a second-rounder and $21.1 million sunk invested in Griffin, per Spotrac.com, he clearly has the ear of owner Dan Snyder.
Ever since making the move to get Griffin, the team has worked much harder to prepare for his eventual failure than ensure his success. By misusing and abusing Griffin on the field, and undermining him off it, Washington coaches and executives are now reaping what they've sowed.
Even if it makes no sense, even if Snyder would never allow Griffin to be benched, Allen, Gruden, Griffin, Cousins and all of their teammates are embroiled in a full-fledged quarterback controversy.
The only thing that can bail them out now is winning.
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