In the spring of 2012, most of the NFL recognized Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck as the best player in the draft and a near-certain difference-maker from the moment he arrived. Baylor's Robert Griffin III was considered a close second in that analysis, and the Washington Redskins were convinced enough to bundle four high picks to ensure they could draft him at No. 2 overall.
Two years later, a massive ESPN Insider project has revealed how much that notion has changed. Mike Sando polled 26 league officials -- general managers, head coaches, coordinators and other evaluators -- and found, among other things, a wide gap in views between Luck and Griffin. While Luck is now pushing into an elite tier of quarterbacks, Griffin was relegated to the third of four tiers and is, by definition, considered a below-average player with a No. 19 ranking.
Some of you might be weary of ubiquitous NFL quarterback rankings, but I thought Sando's access and process made this exercise unique. In the end, it can be viewed as a relatively accurate composite portrayal of the league's assessment on the position.
Luck's position at No. 5 spurs mild debate, but to me it was downright jarring to learn that the aggregate NFL decision-maker prefers more than half the league's starters to Griffin. If a bunch of general managers and coaches would take, say, Andy Dalton over Griffin, then, well, that's quite a fall in perception for a player who is one year removed from Pro Bowl and NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
And why have opinions cooled so quickly? Largely, it seems, because of circumstances beyond Griffin's control and/or marginally related to his performance. Insiders who participated in the project savaged his personality, most notably for his apparent refusal to take blame for mistakes, and expressed concern about his ability to throw from the pocket.
Those reasons seem bogus to me and, more than anything, are a reminder that some NFL teams are too quick to judge players while others put too much emphasis on their most recent play. I understand why it happens -- the pressure to win immediately is enormous -- but in these views we can see the framework for how the NFL can crush a promising player before he has chance to set his feet.
Here are the facts as I see them: Griffin dropped into a dysfunctional situation, one that contributed to him being on the field for a career-changing knee injury at the end of his rookie year, and his biggest fault to date has been an inability to prevent the franchise's collapse.
How quickly the league seems to have forgotten about his 2012 performance, which was the single-biggest reason the Redskins qualified for the playoffs for the first time in five years. And look how fast the league has jumped on his 2013 campaign, viewing it as a step back rather than a predictable short-term consequence of his injury -- and the byproduct of a poisonous coaching arrangement that left him as a pawn in a nasty fight between coach Mike Shanahan and owner Dan Snyder.
One head coach in the story doubted Griffin's ability to throw from the pocket. A defensive coordinator also questioned how accurate Griffin can be from there. I wonder if that perception is based on a thorough analysis of his play, or if it's a lazy projection based on the usual assumption that talented runners can't (or don't want to be) accurate pocket passers.
In truth, data shows that Griffin has been one of the NFL's better-performing pocket passers over the past two seasons. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he ranks among the top 11 qualified passers in completion percentage (65.0), touchdown/interception ratio (2.13) and Total Quarterback Rating (65.5) on passes thrown from the pocket during the 2012 and 2013 seasons combined.
Context is important, of course, and I'm sure you can find reasons to qualify some of that success. These figures can't provide a thorough conclusion, but they do include plays that observers might have forgotten and certainly don't support a theory that questions his pocket presence.
I won't purport to have a scouting eye and always defer to those who do. But the NFL's current view of Griffin seems to me an overreaction. Along with the rest of the franchise, he seemed swallowed last season by dysfunction much bigger than him. And after he made the mistake of publicly explaining his thought process during an interception, rather than simply taking blame for the throw, he found himself branded as a diva. That might or might not be an accurate description, but if we're now downgrading players' value because of high-maintenance personalities, we're going to have to expand our search values a bit.
In the big picture, Griffin is an intelligent, strong-armed quarterback with good instincts in the running game and an example of high-level success in the NFL as recently as two seasons ago. I get that he wasn't as good in 2013 as he was in 2012, but to view him as below average seems to me the symptom of a larger problem among NFL decision-makers than a reflection of Griffin's true trajectory.