When I was tasked with ranking the top 50 draft prospects in 2012 for Yahoo Sports, there wasn't much question who would be No. 1. Stanford's Andrew Luck was the most NFL-ready college quarterback I had yet seen, but Baylor's Robert Griffin III just had something else about him. Something otherworldly. An athletic potential at the position I had not seen before, and have not seen since.
Selected second overall in the 2012 draft by the Redskins, Griffin won the 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year award while completing 65.6 percent of his passes and leading the NFL at 8.1 yards per attempt. In addition, he rushed for 815 yards and seven touchdowns. There seemed to be no limit to his future.
But injuries and coaching changes rendered Griffin increasingly irrelevant over the next few seasons. When Mike Shanahan was fired as Washington's head coach and replaced by Jay Gruden in 2014, Griffin found himself in the crosshairs of a new play designer who wanted things done his way. No longer would Washington's coaching staff bend its playbooks to Griffin's singular talents; now, if Griffin wanted to remain the starter over Kirk Cousins (who had ascended in Griffin's wake), he would have to run a pocket-based, West Coast offense he'd never run before.
The results were predictable. Griffin was a relative disaster when he did play in 2014, and when he blamed his teammates following a horrid start against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 11 that season, things came to a head. Griffin completed 23 of 32 passes for 207 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, and he was sacked six times. After the game, Griffin went off as he was no longer able to on the field.
"If you want to look at the good teams in this league and the great quarterbacks, the Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Mannings, those guys don't play well if their guys don't play well," he said, per NFL.com's Conor Orr. "I need every one of those guys in that locker room, and I know they're looking at me saying the same thing."
Gruden responded by making it clear where the fault lay, per ESPN.com's John Keim. He specified that Griffin wasn't even taking the correct number of drops after taking the snap, didn't look comfortable taking a snap from the shotgun or under center and wasn't taking what the route concepts were giving him.
Griffin suffered a concussion in the 2015 preseason, and Gruden named Cousins the permanent starter. Griffin didn't throw a single regular-season pass in 2015, and the Redskins released him in March 2016.
The Cleveland Browns picked him up after head coach Hue Jackson worked him out and was impressed, but Griffin looked even worse in Cleveland's malformed offense when he was healthy enough to get on the field, which wasn't often. After one season in which Griffin completed 59.2 percent of his passes—the first season in his NFL career that he failed to reach a 60 percent completion rate—the Browns released him.
Now, the man who was the toast of the NFL a few short years ago finds himself in a spot where he might not have a team in 2017.
How did it all go so wrong?
It's clear that Griffin, more than most NFL quarterbacks, must be in a system that doesn't ask him to do too much from a processing standpoint and maximizes his mobility and deep arm. His relative inability to read all areas of the field isn't a professional death sentence—there are many backup quarterbacks and some starters who can't read the full field on every play. When that's the case, coaches must adapt their game plans to get more first-read openings from their receivers. The idea, above all, is to make the quarterback comfortable in the system in spite of his limitations.
Gruden didn't do that with Griffin. The hope was that with Jackson in Cleveland, Griffin would be in a system that helped his development. Jackson is rightly known as a great quarterback coach. But in this case, Griffin's injuries seemed to prevent him from getting all the way into Cleveland's playbook, and by the time he was ready to start multiple games (which wasn't until Week 14), the Browns were in free-fall, and it was too late to write a longer story.
Still, we can glean some of Griffin's future potential from last year's tape.
In Cleveland, Griffin added the extra mechanical element of a bent knee in shotgun and pistol formations pre-snap. This seemed to help him open up his body to make front-side throws, though cross-body throws could be impacted. And though he would occasionally make the types of throws you'd expect from a player with his base talent, there are still fundamental things to work on.
This interception in the second quarter of the Browns' season-ending loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers shows the importance of throwing with timing and anticipation, and what can happen when a quarterback doesn't do that.
Below, Griffin has receiver Rashard Higgins (No. 81) in the left slot as his primary target, and Higgins is going to run a skinny slant toward the end zone. Griffin needs to fit the ball into a specific area behind linebacker Ryan Shazier (No. 50) and Pittsburgh's secondary, and he needs to do so as Higgins is making his break in the route. He throws late, after Higgins has started his inside stem of the route, which means Shazier has already diagnosed the play and is ready for the ball.
When quarterbacks have trouble throwing to a spot as opposed to throwing to a receiver, it makes things far more difficult than they need to be, because the windows in coverage close much more quickly. Such players are known as "see-it-and-throw-it" quarterbacks, and it's not a compliment.
When Griffin is on point, he's helped by good route concepts and his ability to be fearless in the pocket, as was the case with this fourth-quarter throw to receiver Terrelle Pryor (No. 11) in the fourth quarter of that Steelers game. Pryor is the left-side outside receiver, and he puts a nifty move on Steelers cornerback Artie Burns (No. 25).
Pryor does what amounts to a spin move five yards into his route, and this completely flummoxes Burns, who clearly thinks Pryor is stopping for a quick-in cut route. At the same time, Griffin is maintaining his calm in the pocket despite the fact that Pittsburgh's blitz rush is collapsing the Browns offensive line. He doesn't balk; he stays on point and delivers the throw to Pryor for a 43-yard gain.
Griffin also needs to work on not telegraphing his throws. This deflection of a quick pass to receiver Corey Coleman (No. 19) by Burns in the fourth quarter shows how a quarterback tipping his hand can negate the potentially positive effects of a rub-route concept. The Steelers have Burns and safety Sean Davis (No. 28) bracketing Coleman on the outside and running back George Atkinson (No. 25) in the left slot. Atkinson does his job by holding up Davis, but Griffin doesn't move his head from Coleman as the target.
Burns knows exactly what's coming, which allows him to play off and jump the throw as it's coming to deflect it. Griffin must do a better job of disguising his intentions if he's to succeed again in the NFL.
Now that he's a free agent again, who provides the best fits for his future?
Bruce Arians, Head Coach, Arizona Cardinals
With Carson Palmer the starter for at least one more year and Drew Stanton the Bruce Arians-trained backup, there'd be no pressure for Griffin to start right away. Arians is one of the best quarterback developers in the league; he toes a delicate line between positive reinforcement and a truly majestic series of F-bombs, depending on the situation, but at his heart, Arizona's head coach is a teacher and a coach who can get the best out of a quarterback's base abilities.
Arians' passing game would fit Griffin well. The main concept in Arians' playbook is the back-side vertical route with crossing routes to create openings, and front-side "levels" routes to break through coverages. It would take Griffin a while to get the hang of the timing, but he does still have the arm to make deep throws, and if he really wants a re-education in quarterbacking, he couldn't do much better.
Rick Dennison, Offensive Coordinator, Buffalo Bills
Under Shanahan, Griffin excelled in a zone-blocking scheme in which the threat of the run from the quarterback was a primary tool used to keep defenses off base. In addition, Shanahan's passing game featured a ton of play action, and Griffin at his best was one of the better play-action quarterbacks in the league, because the anxiety his mobility caused could be used to force pass defenders to pay too much attention to the run.
New Bills offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, a longtime Shanahan assistant, is one of the more prominent purveyors of the zone running scheme preferred by both Mike and Kyle Shanahan, as it was established by legendary offensive line coach Alex Gibbs. In that system, Griffin could find enough familiarity to start to turn things around.
Ken Whisenhunt, Offensive Coordinator, Los Angeles Chargers
Currently the offensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Chargers, Ken Whisenhunt wouldn't have to worry about starting Griffin too soon, as Philip Rivers is the obvious starter. But he does have experience rehabilitating broken quarterbacks.
When the Arizona Cardinals signed Kurt Warner in 2005, he was coming off injury-plagued and relatively unproductive seasons with the Rams and Giants. Whisenhunt became Arizona's head coach in 2007 and installed a passing game that included a lot of three-step drops and easy first reads. Warner thrived in that system and experienced a professional rebirth. Whisenhunt could do something similar with Griffin, who recently tried out for the team.
Mike McCoy, Offensive Coordinator, Denver Broncos
Mike McCoy, the former Chargers head coach, made his name in the NFL as the coach who made Tim Tebow an effective NFL quarterback for a time. When McCoy was presented with the inevitability of Tebow in 2011 as the Broncos' offensive coordinator, he did what good coaches do: He altered the scheme to try to fit in his quarterback.
McCoy designed a passing game in which Tebow always had an easy first read, so his inability to read the field wouldn't be as much of a problem. Tebow still only completed 46.5 percent of his passes in the regular season, but the extent to which he bottomed out after he lost McCoy's tutelage speaks well for the coach's acumen.
Now that McCoy is the Broncos' offensive coordinator again, he might be able to construct a similar plan for Griffin. He's most likely already working on something similar for Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch, the two current quarterbacks who will battle for the starting job despite their relative inexperience. Adding Griffin might be too much for McCoy's full plate, but it could also help provide clarity to a muddled quarterback depth chart.
Kyle Shanahan, Head Coach, San Francisco 49ers
"You've got to make sure you tailor an offense that fits his skill set. I look into all of that and I think one thing that's tough when a guy's not your for-sure starter, you need to put in a certain offense to give this guy a chance to be successful."
That's what Kyle Shanahan, now the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, told Rich Eisen in May (via NFL.com), after Eisen asked him why Griffin is having trouble finding a home in the league. However, the younger Shanahan helped Griffin establish his greatness when he was his father's offensive coordinator in 2012 and 2013. The Shanahans put together a brilliant composite of Griffin's obvious skill set from college with the passing and running concepts he'd need to succeed in the NFL. And Shanahan certainly has seen his stock rise—he got the 49ers job after designing the NFL's most potent offense in Atlanta.
Right now, Brian Hoyer is the 49ers' projected starting quarterback, with journeyman Matt Barkley and rookie C.J. Beathard as the backups. That means if Hoyer goes down for any length of time, the 49ers are most likely in a great deal of trouble—not that they're going to be world-beaters with Hoyer's limited skill set. It's common to hypothetically reunite coaches and quarterbacks when they head to new teams, but this pairing could actually make sense for both sides. Shanahan once designed the offense that allowed Griffin to be successful—it's entirely possible that he could do it again.
Robert Griffin’s professional crossroads doesn’t have to be the end of his career. If he’s able to find the right landing spot and take time to develop in a constructive environment that plays to his strengths while shoring up his weaknesses, we may yet see flashes of the player he once was. It only takes one team to be right about him. It will be on Griffin to take the reins of that opportunity and hold himself accountable when things get difficult.