The hysteria started before he was drafted by the Washington Redskins. Long lines greeted him at a card show around a month before the draft, with fans getting his autograph and leaving star struck. A big crowd chanted his name at FedEx Field a day after the Redskins selected him. Robert Griffin III arrived in Washington as a savior.
He will not head to Cleveland that same way.
He will arrive there as a curiosity. Can he revive his career? Will he be a different player outside of Washington?
And that’s a good thing. It just might be what he needs.
He heads to Cleveland as a player seeking to re-establish himself, handed nothing but an opportunity. Like a lot of players fighting for survival in the NFL. Nothing is guaranteed. He will not be an entitled player in Cleveland, because he’s not the same guy he was in 2012. In Washington, he was going to be the face of the Redskins franchise for the next decade or so, and had his career unfolded the way many thought it would then he’d have been a face of the NFL. As one person in the front office said after the 2012 season, “He’s going to make a lot of people a lot of money.” That started at the top with owner Dan Snyder.
In Cleveland, Griffin might win a starting job, or he might never play. But he won’t tell players he put in good words with the owner about them; he won’t tell coaches he can help get players they want in the draft. He won’t have a public relations person essentially standing near him at all times in open locker room sessions. He’ll just be one player on a 53-man roster -- and if Griffin becomes more than that, the Browns will be very happy because it means his play will have reached a certain level. It makes sense that the Browns would want him: He’s a 26-year-old with talent. And if Griffin fails? They won’t be out anything other than a little money; no harm, no foul. It’s a risk worth taking.
A Griffin comeback would be a terrific story of redemption; the league was a lot of fun when he starred in 2012. He’s not a bad kid, but he did need a new home.
I have a tough time imagining that Griffin truly felt Cleveland was the best place as much as it was just the best option available. There was never going to be more than just a couple of teams truly interested; his tape was not good the past couple of years and the NFL certainly noticed -- and does not place the blame on Jay Gruden. This is the same coach, after all, who helped groom Andy Dalton and Kirk Cousins.
The Browns just lost two starting offensive linemen and are weak at the skill positions. What Griffin needs right now: a strong offensive line, playmakers surrounding him and a good play-action game. But in many ways he's a lot like the team and city he’ll now join. Cleveland, my hometown, loves a comeback story because the city has had to author a few of them in recent decades. Browns coach Hue Jackson needs his own comeback after a rough first head-coaching experience in Oakland.
Jackson has a good reputation with players and could be the sort of upbeat personality Griffin needs (remember: something similar was said when Gruden succeeded Mike Shanahan). Gruden inherited him; Jackson will be signing him. There’s a difference. After the past three years, Griffin needs to be surrounded by people who want him. That’s not saying the Redskins were wrong in their thoughts about him -- they believed more in Cousins; it’s not a crime and Cousins played well last season.
If Griffin sticks around it's because Jackson thinks it can work, not because the owner wants him around. If he plays, it will have been earned. Going somewhere he's wanted will be good for Griffin. Will it be enough to improve his play? I don’t know, but it won't hurt. It's part of a fresh start.
One fear is that Jackson won’t be able to focus on Griffin as much as he probably would like, not when he has offensive coordinator duties as well. And not when he might have a high-round rookie to groom at quarterback, a player more likely to be the face of the franchise in future years. For Griffin this might be the place he starts his way back, only to finish it elsewhere.
When Griffin first arrived in Washington, while coaches said he would transform the game they also said it would take him four or five years to truly develop as a passer. He’s not there yet. This isn’t about running the zone-read. Griffin’s return to prominence is far from that simple (and his durability issues must be mentioned with any thoughts of him running more); until he develops as a passer he won’t be anything other than a player capable of occasional big games thanks in part to his ability to throw downfield.
Make no mistake: Griffin has a long way to go and I know some doubt he’ll ever get there. But the Browns just made a low-risk investment in the hope that he does. And if that happens? He’ll be hailed on the way out, not on the way in.