Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Obituary of the RG3 Trade

By Brad Oremland

There are so many things I wanted to write about this week. Peyton Manning and Calvin Johnson retiring. The Atlanta Falcons' tone-deaf homophobia at the NFL Combine. Johnny Manziel's release. The Texans signing Brock Osweiler and Lamar Miller. Other significant free agency moves, like Olivier Vernon (Giants), Matt Forte (Jets), Danny Trevathan (Bears), Chase Daniel (Eagles), and so on.

Maybe I'll get to those next week. But first, let's dissect the 2012 trade that brought Robert Griffin III to Washington. The team released RG3 last week, after four years of ups and downs, brilliance and timidity, freak athleticism and ruinous injuries, and — most of all — drama.

Griffin had one of the greatest rookie seasons in NFL history. He passed for 3,200 yards and rushed for 815. He threw 20 touchdowns and just 5 interceptions, with a rookie-record 102.4 passer rating. He scored 7 rush TDs and led Washington to its first playoff appearance in five years.

Griffin began the playoff game on fire. On the first two drives, he was 6-of-9 for 68 yards and 2 TDs, plus 2 first downs rushing, and Washington took a 14-0 lead. Just before the second touchdown, though, Griffin aggravated his injured right knee. This is the turning point in RG3's career. He briefly went into the locker room, but returned to the field and continued to play. The rest of the game, he went 4-of-10 for 16 yards, with 9 rushing yards, an interception, and a lost fumble. Washington's offense, which scored 2 TDs in 2 drives with a healthy RG3, failed to score on its next eight possessions. Griffin gained more first downs on the first drive than the rest of the game combined. Washington lost 24-14, and it was painful partly because another promising rookie QB, Kirk Cousins, was available on the bench. We'll come back to that.

Griffin was never the same after the playoff loss. Everyone agrees on that. The following season, 2013, he threw 16 TDs and 12 INTs, his passer rating dropped more than 20 points, and his rushing decreased to 489 yards and no touchdowns. In a partial 2014, he tossed 4 TDs and 6 INTs, ran even less, and took a horrifying number of coverage sacks, nearly doubling his previous sack and fumble rates. By 2015, he looked almost unplayable — and indeed, he didn't play at all.

What happened? How did Griffin go from one of the best rookie seasons of all time to a mediocre player, and then a tentative, sparkless has-been? No one's sure. Maybe it was the injury. Griffin returned to the playoff game, his rookie year, when he could barely walk. Did the initial injury, or further damage suffered as he continued to play through the injury, wreck his athleticism? Certainly he never looked like the same runner we saw during the regular season.

Maybe it was Adrian Peterson's fault. Griffin was a rookie in 2012, when Peterson — fresh off an ACL injury — beat his recovery timetable and returned to not only play, but to have his greatest season, rushing for 2,097 yards and winning NFL MVP. Peterson's unique success inspired other athletes — who are naturally ambitious — to accelerate their recovery timetables. It was unwise for Griffin, who wrecked his knee in January, to return in September. But he did, and he didn't look healthy. Maybe he never fully recovered. Maybe he changed his playing style to accommodate his physical limitations, and was never able to recapture the magic. Perhaps he lost confidence.

Maybe it was Mike Shanahan's fault. Part of a coach's job is saying no to his players. When Robert wanted to go back into the playoff game, when he wanted to start the season opener, Shanahan should have stopped him, and he never did. Late in 2013, Shanahan benched Griffin for Cousins, leading Jim Rome to quip, "Mike Shanahan is the only coach I know who plays his franchise quarterback when he's hurt and benches him when he's healthy." Shanahan and Griffin hated each other by the end of Robert's second year.

Maybe the decline of Griffin's career was his own fault. By most accounts, Griffin wanted to become a pocket passer. Aaron Rodgers was his model; that's the kind of player he wanted to be. So Griffin, riding the wave of his brilliant rookie season, and supported by a personal relationship with team owner Daniel Snyder, insisted to Mike and Kyle Shanahan that they change the offense in 2013. Gone would be the system Kyle Shanahan had installed so effectively in 2012, and in which Griffin had flourished. Instead, they would curtail his scrambling, virtually eliminate the read option, and RG3 would turn into Aaron Rodgers. By getting away from his greatest strength — his athleticism and running ability — Griffin doomed his own career.

Or maybe, it was our fault. Us, the fans, and the media. RG3 initially handled stardom gracefully and gallantly, but by the end of that fantastic rookie season, it had become impossible to resist the hype. When you're playing well, and you're surrounded by people cooing about how wonderful you are, it's difficult to stay humble. When one of those people cooing is your team owner, who has private dinners with you but not your teammates, you're going to feel special, and you're going to be divided from the rest of the team. Players will overlook self-centered behavior or a prickly personality from a champion like Tom Brady, but the moment Griffin's play began to slip, so did his support in the locker room. He gave weekly press conferences in the offseason, complained about how the coaches used him, deflected blame towards others, and dismissed criticism as "haters" who didn't deserve to be listened to.

I don't know why Griffin's career blew up, and you don't either. Probably it was some combination of the factors above. But now Washington has given up on Griffin. With no one willing to trade anything for him, he was released and (as of this writing) remains a free agent. With RG3's tenure in the nation's capital at an end, let's re-examine the 2012 NFL Draft, and in particular the trade that brought RG3 to where he is today.

Following a Heisman Trophy at Baylor, Griffin was widely projected to be the second pick of the draft, behind Stanford's Andrew Luck. The Rams, still banking on Sam Bradford, aimed to trade the No. 2 pick to a quarterback-needy team. Washington took the bait, sending four high draft picks to St. Louis for the right to draft Griffin: three first-round picks and a second-round selection.

That ended up being the 6th and 39th picks in 2012, the 22nd choice in 2013, and the 2nd overall selection in 2014. It's an incredibly one-sided trade, and that was obvious even before Griffin's career torpedoed. Almost exactly four years ago, I termed it "the ransoming of RG3."

My initial reaction is that this ranks among the most one-sided trades in the history of professional sports, reminiscent of the disastrous Herschel Walker and Ricky Williams trades ... Walker was a good player for the Vikings [but they] traded five players and six high draft choices to get him. It was a substantial setback for Minnesota, and the foundation of the Cowboy dynasty, with the draft choices yielding impact players like Emmitt Smith, Darren Woodson, and Alvin Harper.

Did the Rams yield a similar haul from the RG3 trade? After a little more wheeling and dealing, the draft picks acquired in the trade from Washington yielded Michael Brockers, Janoris Jenkins, Isaiah Pead, Rokevious Watkins, Alec Ogletree, Stedman Bailey, Zac Stacy, and Greg Robinson.

There's no Emmitt Smith in that group. Alec Ogletree, who was injured in 2015, is the best of the group. He's one of the top tacklers in the league, he forces a lot of fumbles, he's effective in coverage, and he's dangerous with the ball in his hands. In 2013, Ogletree returned an interception 98 yards for a touchdown.

Michael Brockers is also a good player. He's a solid interior lineman, which you expect from a guy who's listed at 326 pounds, and he averages 3.5 sacks per year, which is pretty impressive for a guy who's listed at 326 pounds. Janoris Jenkins, who started 58 games for the Rams, played well enough to earn a five-year, $62.5 million deal with the Giants. Greg Robinson, the 2nd overall pick in the 2014 draft, has not played well so far, but it's too early to give up on him entirely.

The others are inconsequential. Stedman Bailey is a backup, Zac Stacy is a backup with another team, and Pead and Watkins are out of the NFL. However, the haul of draft picks probably had some indirect benefits. Even if Greg Robinson doesn't work out, for instance, addressing the offensive line freed the Rams up to address defensive line with their own pick later in the same round, and that selection produced Aaron Donald: the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2014, a first-team all-pro in 2015, and if I had to guess, a Hall of Famer when all is said and done. Even if Ogletree is the only star from among the draft choices traded to the Rams, those extra picks freed up the team to address other needs.

There's one more factor to consider in weighing the RG3 trade. Kirk Cousins. Washington just used its franchise tag on Cousins, following his first year as the full-time starter. Cousins passed for a team-record 4,166 yards, with a 101.6 passer rating and an impressively low 4.6% sack rate. Cousins also scored 5 TDs on the ground, thus breaking Sonny Jurgensen's 48-year-old franchise record for total TDs (34) in a season.

Washington selected Cousins in the fourth round of the 2012 draft — the same year they took RG3. Rather than investing in a lineman or receiver to help Griffin — or even a defensive piece to take pressure off the offense — the team brought in another rookie QB. Why would they give up so much in the trade for Griffin, and then hedge their bet with another QB? There are four plausible explanations.

1. Someone in the decision-making process wasn't sold on Griffin.

2. The team wasn't convinced Griffin could stay healthy.

3. The team was wild about Cousins and wanted to keep him away from other teams.

4. The front office is run by idiots.

There's a reason so many teams pair an old quarterback with a young quarterback. You have an old lion, near the end of his career, take a young buck under his wing to pass on what he's learned. Or you have a young stud with a seasoned vet behind him, a solid journeyman who won't light the world on fire but won't fall apart if he's pressed into action. Think Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler, or Andrew Luck and Matt Hasselbeck. Cousins played well enough that it got RG3 looking over his shoulder. Did he rush back from the knee injury because he was worried about losing his job to Cousins?

Cousins made clear every time he was asked that he would be a good teammate and he understood his role, but that he wasn't content to be a backup — he wanted to start, if not in Washington, then somewhere else. Rather than drafting someone who could help Griffin succeed, the team chose someone who expressed a (not unreasonable) desire to compete with Robert Griffin.

And since the team obviously liked Cousins — enough to make an unusual and controversial draft choice to select him — the trade for RG3 looks even worse. If this draft has a QB you like, who might be available in the fourth round ... why on earth are you giving up four high draft picks to select a different quarterback in the same draft?

Four years later, Griffin is a free agent. He had one magical season, got injured, and faded to virtual irrelevance. Cousins just got franchised. The team couldn't agree on a long-term contract, because they haven't seen enough of Cousins — he was sitting behind Griffin for most of the past four seasons — to know whether last year was a fluke. And the Rams have Alec Ogletree, Michael Brockers, and a couple other pieces. If you had to grade the exchange for both Washington and the Rams, you'd obviously give the Rams a higher grade. But what you're most struck by, I think, is the mess Washington made of its situation. Following an insanely generous trade, the team was presented with a brilliant athlete in Griffin and a good quarterback in Kirk Cousins, and managed to bungle it for years before ending up here.

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