There may be no position more celebrated in sports than that of the quarterback, who is typically singled out for his direction when a team is winning and deluged by criticism during defeat.
Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick have each experienced the tension of that dialectic. On top of their games last season, their first as starting quarterbacks, a variety of circumstances have conspired to test each player's aspirations over the past several months. Those issues have fueled in-depth examinations of their performance in a season in which it seemed certain they would ascend to superstardom.
Griffin's Washington Redskins were expected to further improve this season after a remarkable turnaround late last year, but their quarterback has been dogged by recovery from offseason surgery and a tilted perception of his relationship with his coaches and teammates.
Kaepernick, who took over the reins of the San Francisco 49ers around the same time last season the Redskins began their run, has dampened his team's hopes of another run to the Super Bowl with remarkably inconsistent play and a lack of willingness to address it.
The two teams, mired in losing streaks, will meet Monday night at FedEx Field. More significant, however, is the way the two players have reacted to the scrutiny they've faced, including shifting the blame and, on occasion, completely withdrawing from responsibility.
"I don't worry about that," Kaepernick said tersely earlier this week, answering a question on a conference call with several Washington-based reporters about how he deals with criticism. "I worry about coming in here, working and getting ready for the game."
Then, quiet. Three questions later, and after little more than four minutes in total, Kaepernick could be heard loudly hanging up the phone.
The quarterbacks' style of play – dual-threat talents enhanced by the risk of the zone-read option – helped change the look of a professional offense while it led their teams to the postseason.
The Associated Press named Griffin the Offensive Rookie of the Year after he set multiple team, rookie and league records and led the Redskins to their first playoff appearance in five years. Kaepernick, in his second season, replaced Alex Smith as the 49ers' starting quarterback for the final seven games and led his team to Super Bowl XLVII, where it lost to the Baltimore Ravens.
Their personalities have already led to endorsements from several large companies; Griffin has signed deals with adidas and Subway, among others, while Kaepernick capitalized on his Super Bowl appearance by joining Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco in a series of commercials for McDonald's.
Each player was expected to build on his performances, but each has struggled. For Griffin, whose Redskins are last in the NFC East at 3-7, an offseason lost to two torn ligaments in his right knee contributed to the Redskins' poor start. Kaepernick, meanwhile, has regressed as a passer; after throwing for 412 yards in a season-opening victory over the Green Bay Packers, he has surpassed 200 passing yards in a game only once this season and has the 49ers at 6-4 following dismal performances in his last two games.
"I think he's doing a heck of a job," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters this week. "I guess I'd be puzzled to why people would think that [he isn't]. What's most important is what we see."
Isolating the reasons for each quarterback's troubles isn't simple, and they don't seem to have many answers, either. Griffin controversially said last Sunday, after the Redskins lost 24-16 on the road to Philadelphia, that the Eagles' defense "kind of knew what was coming before it was coming" – an apparent indictment of his coaching staff.
Kaepernick, too, made a pair of statements after the 49ers' road loss to the New Orleans Saints that raised eyebrows. After being asked about the communication of plays from the sidelines, the quarterback said it can be frustrating not to get them in quicker. Then, asked to elaborate, he insinuated that the complexities of the offense can be overwhelming.
"We have a lot on our plate, as far as what we're trying to get done," Kaepernick said.
In a brief question-and-answer session at the 49ers' practice facility on Thursday, Kaepernick wouldn't address his comments, saying only that players – himself included – are expected to do a lot within the 49ers' offense.
Griffin, though, said he was merely trying to praise the Eagles with his statement and wasn't singling anyone out. He also said he has been hesitant to use too many personal pronouns lest he give the impression he's putting himself before the team.
"You've got to keep pushing forward," Griffin said. "Once again, never change who you are. Come to work every day with a smile, upbeat, get guys to play and make sure no one ever quits."
Having coached Steve Young and John Elway during the prime of their careers, Redskins coach Mike Shanahan has had the benefit of working with quarterbacks who have dominant, detail-oriented personalities.
Shanahan said Friday that being a quarterback doesn't always make someone a leader. Often times, those qualities are innate.
"You've got to have a lot of physical and mental characteristics to be a leader," Shanahan said. "You've got to perform at a certain level. You've got to handle yourself a certain way. ... There's a lot of guys that are very quiet and they lead a certain way. [There are] a lot of different types of leaders – some are boisterous, some are very quiet – but usually to become a leader, you have to perform and perform consistently to get that respect from your teammates."
Young, the former San Francisco quarterback who is now an ESPN analyst, has followed Kaepernick closely. In an appearance on KNBR 680 AM in San Francisco early last week, he took issue with Kaepernick's leadership on the field, especially in terms of his inability to adequately push the offense this season.
"We know that that's not going to happen in five seconds," Young said. "That's a process. Is that just too much right now? And people smell it, and know it, and now it's affecting everything? That's alarming."
Kirk Cousins, Griffin's backup with the Redskins, wrote a book about leadership during the offseason. A three-year starter at Michigan State, Cousins said he believed he won teammates over by trying to get to know as many of them as he could away from football, so adjustments made during practices or games were taken in a positive light.
"You've got to have relational moxie, and you've got to understand how to relate to people where you're being yourself, you're being real, but it comes off to people the right way," Cousins said. "I think [Indianapolis Colts quarterback] Andrew Luck is only in his second year, and I don't think it took him very long to be a leader, or the leader, in the locker room because he carries himself in a way that people really gravitate to."
Wide receiver Pierre Garçon, who played with current Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning for four years with the Colts, said teammates always believed in Manning because of the way he asserted himself.
Cousins, who was not specifically asked about Griffin, said he has studied Manning, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and has noticed they've taken a clear top-down, yet supportive, approach to the game.
"I think, to some degree, the top quarterbacks in the league – what shines through for me is that, I don't know if there's a better word for it, but they're anal," Cousins said. "They're paranoid. They fear failure in the sense that a guy runs a wrong route, and it's just unacceptable. There's no tolerance of it."
Kaepernick has maintained since entering the league that he's a perfectionist, though he disputed the notion that the trait has clouded his judgment on the field.
"He's been consistently good," Harbaugh said. "He's been like that every week he's been backup or a starter. ... Colin's always been A-plus in that way."
Griffin, though, acknowledged that the players' first season as starting quarterbacks set expectations for themselves, and their teams, that can be hard to match.
Not having those standards, however, can be more dangerous than having them be too high, Griffin said.
"With expectations, you want that," Griffin said. "You want guys to expect you to succeed, to be great, and for us, there were a lot of expectations coming into the season. We just haven't lived up to them, and that's unfortunate."
After reaching high levels of success in both high school and college, neither quarterback has had to deal with many of these difficulties before.
The offseason, and next season, will show whether or not such situations have strengthened them.
"You can either look at adversity and say, 'Look, I'll let you beat me and we'll be down and out and we'll quit on the rest of the season,' or you can buckle up, stare adversity in the face and let it know that you won't be beaten," Griffin said. "That's the way I approach it. That's the way I know those guys in the locker room approach it. That's all you can do."
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