The Robert Griffin III era appears to be drawing to a close in Washington. Once such a beloved figure that fans hunted down his wedding registry to send him gifts, Griffin has quickly become more isolated by the week. It was one thing when he was enduring calls for Kirk Cousins from a misguided subset of the fan base; it’s another to have DeSean Jackson subgramming Griffin while Jay Gruden publicly excoriates his starting quarterback.
You can understand why Gruden would be aggressive about challenging Griffin and questioning his professional viability; he doesn’t want to go down with the ship. It’s not out of the question for Daniel Snyder to fire his head coach after one season — he sacked a far more renowned coach in Marty Schottenheimer after a lone 8-8 season to hire Steve Spurrier in 2002 — and Gruden wants to have a shot at succeeding with a quarterback of his choosing. That’s probably not anybody on the current roster.
It would be one thing if Griffin were playing at the level of an above-average starting quarterback, but that just hasn’t been the case in his 119 pass attempts this season. He’s completing 69.7 percent of his attempts, which seems impressive, but his average throw has gone just 7.5 yards in the air, which is 23rd in the league among current NFL starters. His other metrics are around league-average, but Griffin has taken sacks on an unreal 13.6 percent of his dropbacks this season, and has fumbled four times. The sacks are the biggest reason why Griffin’s QBR is just 26.7, a figure that beats out only Michael Vick, Blake Bortles, EJ Manuel, and Chad Henne among quarterbacks with 100 dropbacks or more.
Griffin has also stopped running, which added a significant chunk of value to his high-efficiency, low-volume work as a passer. Even in that now-distant 2012 season, Griffin threw just 393 passes in 15 starts, averaging a mere 26 pass attempts per contest. He supplemented that by running the ball an average of exactly eight times per game, producing an average of 54.3 yards per start. In his five starts this season, Griffin has run the ball a total of just 22 times and produced an average of 20 rushing yards per game.1
To be fair, some of that is because Griffin went down during the first quarter of Washington’s Week 2 game against Jacksonville with his dislocated ankle. But even if you take his 100 rushing yards and spread it across four games as opposed to five, he’s still averaging only 25 yards per contest.
Griffin has also regressed mechanically. Greg Cosell put together a useful breakdown of Griffin’s problems for Yahoo, including a play against the Buccaneers in which Griffin actually had each of his five eligible receivers open at the same time and failed to find any of them. Griffin’s footwork is erratic, his throwing mechanics have been adversely affected by knee and ankle injuries, and his decision-making is spotty at best.
He hasn’t looked anything like the guy who excelled in 2012, in part because Gruden has taken out the packaged plays and Baylor concepts that Kyle Shanahan installed in his scheme for Griffin coming out of college. Per ESPN Stats & Information, Washington has executed just 24 zone-read runs on offense this season. In 2012, Washington ran 118 such plays, and that’s without considering the plays in which Griffin held on to the football as part of a packaged play and threw it.
Nobody used the play-fake in 2012 more than Washington, with Griffin as the point man on a league-high 195 dropbacks. He averaged nearly 11.7 yards per pass attempt and posted an 87.9 QBR on those throws, the third-best figure in the league behind Peyton Manning and Ryan Tannehill. In 2014, Griffin has gone to the play-fake only 35 times in five games, and while he’s completing 77.4 percent of his passes on play-fakes, it’s produced a QBR of just 52.1. At the top of the QBR charts for performance on play-action passes, mind you? Colt McCoy (first, 99.7 QBR on 10 attempts) and Kirk Cousins (fourth, 96.1 QBR on 41 attempts). Washington is just 17th in play-action frequency this season under Gruden.
Washington will need to start formulating its decision on Griffin’s long-term future with the team as early as February. While there’s still one year remaining on Griffin’s rookie deal, Washington will have to decide whether it wants to tender Griffin’s fifth-year option for 2016 by May 3, 2015. Because Griffin was drafted in the top 10, the option would be based upon the 10 highest-paid players at Griffin’s position, so it would be a hefty one-year sum. The Panthers, for example, picked up Cam Newton’s fifth-year option and will see his salary jump from $3.4 million in 2014, the final year of his rookie contract, to $14.7 million for the fifth-year option in 2015.
For most players who have established themselves as viable starters, the fifth-year option is a no-brainer. It extends the player’s contract for one season at a reasonable sum while giving the team leverage in negotiating a long-term deal. Even better for teams is that they can offer the option and then take it off the table if they change their minds, as long as they do it before the first day of the league year in that fifth and final season.
The only thing the fifth-year option is guaranteed for is injury. That’s where the Griffin conundrum lies. If Washington were to pick up Griffin’s fifth-year option this offseason and he proceeded to produce another disappointing season in 2015, it could cut him before 2016 without being forced to pay him $15 million or so in 2016. If Griffin were to suffer another injury in 2015 that kept him out during the 2016 season, Washington would be stuck footing the bill for Griffin, even if he were unable to play.
That alone changes the calculus of how and when Washington decides to move on from Robert Griffin. If it doesn’t pick up the option, it has little leverage because teams know that he’s going to be gone after the season anyway. And since Washington would be on the hook for Griffin in 2016 if it picked up the option in February and saw him get hurt in May, it’ll likely try to wait until the last possible moment to announce that it’s not picking up his option, which means that it’ll go through free agency and, likely, the NFL draft with Griffin on its roster.
Griffin is already under contract in 2015 for a guaranteed $6.7 million, so Washington would pay him the same amount of money regardless of whether it keeps him or cuts him. If it traded him, Washington would be able to wipe $3.3 million off its cap. Griffin would be a very palatable option for a number of teams on a one-year, $3.4 million contract. Given that borderline-starter options like Matt Cassel and Chad Henne were getting two-year deals in the $9 million range, teams would be able to justify employing Griffin as a backup, let alone giving him that kind of money to start. Hell, even if Washington decided it wanted to pick up Griffin’s option, it could trade him and be dealing a two-year contract in the $19 million range, which isn’t crazy for a guy with Griffin’s potential upside.
The logical way to get rid of Griffin would be to find a trading partner in March, before teams with quarterback vacancies can hit the free-agent market and while Washington can still feasibly suggest it’s going to pick up Griffin’s fifth-year option. The only problem is that Washington has to find somebody who actually wants Griffin. Quarterbacks with shot mechanics, injury issues, and a history of drama aren’t exactly super-valuable propositions, but they’re still quarterbacks, and teams are desperate. Every coach in football believes that they’re the one who can turn around a troubled player, and when the upside is Griffin’s 2012 season, you can bet that somebody’s going to try.
They’re just not going to pay a lot to do so. For a quarterback who once cost Daniel Snyder & Co. three first-round picks and a second-rounder, there’s no way Washington can expect to recoup a first-round pick in return, especially given that the teams likely to be interested in Griffin are the ones that will be picking in the top half of the first round. More likely, I would expect to see something like a 2016 fourth-round pick that could rise to a second-rounder if Griffin hits certain benchmarks for his new team in 2015. If Washington wants a 2015 pick for Griffin, it’s hard to see anyone offering more than a third-round pick.
I’m confident that somebody will find Griffin worth that price tag. I’m just not sure who. As best as I can tell, there are 10 likely candidates who either need a quarterback or might find Griffin to be a useful buy-low opportunity this offseason. In relative ascending order of their projected interest level …
10. Tennessee Titans: The Titans have given up on 2014 and are giving rookie sixth-round pick Zach Mettenberger reps to end the season. He’s managed to keep his head afloat, completing 58.8 percent of his passes while throwing seven touchdowns against five picks, but he’s hardly a finished product or a sure thing to start in 2015. Assuming that Jake Locker and Charlie Whitehurst leave Tennessee this offseason, the Titans will surely bring in a quarterback to compete with Mettenberger this spring.
That could be Griffin, but I doubt that Tennessee will find him to be a particularly appealing target because of head coach Ken Whisenhunt. Whisenhunt has a historical affinity for quarterbacks like Mettenberger; tall, big-armed guys with little hint of where the ball is going make the former Arizona head coach’s knees weak, and have for years now. Griffin doesn’t fit that mold whatsoever.
9. Houston Texans: Bill O’Brien’s quarterback preferences aren’t quite as clear, and the Texans don’t have an obvious solution under center, but he’s also exhibited an interest in big-armed mediocrities. Houston spent a fourth-round pick on Pittsburgh quarterback Tom Savage, who might have been the second-least-accurate passer in this year’s draft, and then traded for former Patriots passer Ryan Mallett. Mallett is done for the year with a torn pectoral muscle, but it seems likely both parties would be interested in bringing him back to compete for the starting job in 2015. That would seem to leave Griffin out.
8. Arizona Cardinals: Arizona didn’t appear to have a need at quarterback until about two weeks ago, when Carson Palmer went down with a season-ending torn ACL. Palmer is under contract for 2015, with his deal guaranteed for injury, but it’s unclear whether he’ll actually be able to play at the beginning of the season. The Cardinals do have Drew Stanton at the helm, but if he bombs during the final five games of the season, Arizona might want to explore different options in 2015.
General manager Steve Keim has historically exhibited an interest in pursuing veterans if their price tag drops and they become a viable buy-low opportunity, but I don’t know that head coach Bruce Arians would be a great fit for Griffin. Again, Arians has exhibited an interest in more traditionally skilled quarterbacks, having signed Stanton before drafting Virginia Tech passer Logan Thomas in the fourth round. Griffin could be an interesting one-year rental for Arizona, but I don’t think it ends up going that way.
7. San Francisco 49ers: Finally, an interesting fit of head coach, general manager, and quarterback. It’s unclear who will be coaching the 49ers next season, given all the chatter around Jim Harbaugh’s future, but the 49ers are the exact sort of team that might consider taking a flier on Griffin in the hopes of finding an undervalued asset for their roster. I mean, they actually traded a sixth-round pick to the Jaguars for Blaine Gabbert this offseason. Griffin is a lot better than Gabbert. And if anybody has enough faith in his ability to rebuild quarterbacks to justify trading for Griffin, it’s Jim Harbaugh.
In a vacuum, the two might fit. The problem is that the 49ers might not think he’s the right guy for their current situation. While Colin Kaepernick is entrenched as San Francisco’s starter, Griffin still has enough of a pedigree to at least cause some concerns of a quarterback controversy. That could be destabilizing. More notably, the 49ers will need every cent they can find under the cap in 2015 to retain as many of their impending free agents as possible. That could make a $3.3 million backup quarterback a luxury the 49ers can’t afford.
If Harbaugh does leave, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him consider Griffin as a viable target in his new digs. Several of the teams below could feasibly hire Harbaugh this offseason were he to come free, so keep that in mind while we evaluate their interest in Griffin.
6. Oakland Raiders: While rookie quarterback Derek Carr just helped deliver Oakland’s first win in more than a year on Thursday night, his first season on the job has been inconsistent. Carr has been good enough to justify getting another year with the starting gig, but he hasn’t been so good to prevent a new regime from moving on and acquiring a new starting quarterback this offseason. Carr could find himself in a similar situation to somebody like Mike Glennon, who performed well enough to stay on the roster, but lost his job when Lovie Smith and Jason Licht came in to power in Tampa Bay and preferred Josh McCown.
As always, it depends on who gets fired and hired in Oakland. If Reggie McKenzie retains his job as general manager and gets to hire a new coach, he’ll likely pick somebody who can help develop Carr further. If McKenzie gets fired and somebody like Harbaugh or Jon Gruden takes over with full control of the roster, they might try to acquire a quarterback more to their liking. That could very well be Griffin. And, of course, if the Raiders were to swoop into the college ranks and hire Griffin’s former coach at Baylor, Art Briles might very well find his old starter to be a worthwhile choice to run some variant of the Baylor offense in the pros.
5. New York Jets: The Jets really need a quarterback, have no viable option currently under center, and could very well hire a head coach like Harbaugh or Briles who would be interested in making Griffin the starting quarterback. I’m just putting them this low because I don’t want to go through the media circus of Robert Griffin on the New York Jets. Nobody needs that in their lives.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: With Josh McCown revealing himself to be Josh McCown and Glennon getting benched for that Josh McCown anyway, it’s fair to say the Bucs could consider a quarterback this offseason. They will likely draft in the top five, which would allow them to go after Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston. If they don’t fall in love with either of those options, they could head back into the veteran market and deal a mid-round pick to Washington for Griffin. This would be a very logical landing point for all parties involved.
3. Philadelphia Eagles: Oh boy. This is the nuclear option for everyone involved, and yet for everybody involved, it makes a lot of sense. Chip Kelly hasn’t had a mobile quarterback capable of scaring opposing teams with the zone-read since Michael Vick hit the bench last season, and even with his limitations after knee surgery, Griffin would qualify. The offense that Kelly runs in Philadelphia shares some similarities to what Griffin ran in college, given their shared usage of the read-option and emphasis on both spreading the field and using tempo as an offensive asset. And Kelly, who recruited Griffin out of high school, has no qualms about acquiring a damaged quarterback if he thinks he can mold him into a worthwhile starter. Is Griffin really a worse case than Mark Sanchez?
The fly in the ointment is Washington, which might hesitate to deal its former franchise quarterback inside the division out of a fear he’ll come back to beat D.C. twice a year. That being said, if Washington is already so sure that Griffin’s not worth holding on to, why would it be concerned about dealing Griffin to a rival? If anything, if it’s that sure he’s going to fail wherever he goes, why wouldn’t it be aggressive about dealing him to Philadelphia in the hopes he’ll blow up their locker room? This would be the most fun destination for Griffin.
2. Buffalo Bills: The Bills are probably the team most desperate to acquire a veteran quarterback in free agency. While Buffalo fans will probably note that the team is now 6-5 and has a 4-3 record with Kyle Orton at the helm, the Bills still have to play the Broncos, Packers, and Patriots over the final five weeks. It would be a shocker if they finished even 8-8.
Orton is under contract for 2015, but the Bills would still be wise to at least consider going after competition. Having dealt their first-round pick to acquire Sammy Watkins, Buffalo would likely be more desperate to find a quarterback and send a mid-round pick Washington’s way in the hopes of procuring RG3. With Buffalo tucked away safely in the AFC, the Bills might also be one of the few landing spots Washington prefers.
1. St. Louis Rams: And yet, the best fit might very well be the team that traded away the chance to acquire Griffin in the first place. The Rams have recouped a bounty for their decision to trade away the second overall pick three years ago, but the one thing they failed to come away with as part of that deal is a viable starting quarterback. Sam Bradford’s injuries should force him out of town this offseason, and while the Rams appeared to have stumbled onto a starter with Austin Davis, the franchise soured on him quickly enough to run back to veteran retread Shaun Hill two weeks ago.
The Rams also are good enough and have an easy enough schedule over the next five weeks (with games against Oakland, Washington, and the Giants) to likely finish somewhere in the lower half of the top 10, a spot that could preclude them from getting one of the draft’s top-rated passers. Given that they’ve had so many draft picks over the past three seasons by virtue of the Griffin trade and the subsequent deals the Rams made with those picks, they are perhaps best positioned to send a mid-round selection to Washington for Griffin, even after dealing a fourth- and sixth-rounder to the Buccaneers in October for Mark Barron.
At some point, it’s worth it for the Rams to go after a high-risk option. Bradford was one of the lowest-reward options in football when he was in the lineup. The Rams have built a deep roster with talent up and down the lineup, but they’ve never taken a risk on a player like Griffin, who might dramatically improve their fortunes. I wouldn’t make the move if they intend to hold on to offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, but if the Rams found a more imaginative replacement and moved on from Bradford, Griffin would be a logical fit.
In all, I strongly doubt that Griffin will remain on the Washington roster in 2015. There’s just not enough to be gained by having him around, especially with all the public posturing from Gruden suggesting that he wants to move on and go after the quarterback of his choosing. If Washington fires Gruden and hires somebody like Briles or Harbaugh, it would make sense for Griffin to stay. Otherwise, a trade makes the most sense, and these are the 10 teams that most obviously fit a Griffin deal.