- The Washington Times - Monday, August 31, 2015

ASHBURN — An eclectic mix of thousands of fans adorned in replica jerseys, faux headdresses and other team apparel milled about the playing surface at FedEx Field on a late April afternoon three years ago. They were drawn to the stadium to celebrate the arrival of the Washington Redskins’ newest acquisition, Robert Griffin III, the Heisman Trophy winner from Baylor who had been selected with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft two days earlier to be the apparent savior at quarterback.

Welcomed by the team’s pep band and serenaded by the chant of his initials, Griffin emerged from the tunnel leading to the locker room wearing a black pinstripe suit and a Redskins cap on his head. He climbed a flight of black metal stairs and strolled to the front of a makeshift stage, then, after his introductory remarks, he led the mass of humanity in singing the team’s fight song.

“I understand the anticipation and the excitement, but you’ve got to realize, it’s about more than just one person,” Griffin said minutes later, when he was introduced as a member of the Redskins for the first time at a press conference. “Whoever gets all the attention also gets all the criticism, so it’s not necessarily how you can take the praise and the attention. It’s how you can deal with it.”

High expectations followed Griffin to Washington, which had, since last winning the Super Bowl after the 1991 season, cycled through a compendium of quarterbacks, several of whom had no business suiting up for the team, let alone starting a game. For all of his college accolades, Griffin arrived as a sure-fire prospect, an energizing, bright young player who could finally stabilize the Redskins and lift them from the doldrums of years of poor results.

Those expectations, however unfair, also contributed, in part, to Griffin’s downfall. After propping him up for much of the past eight months, since the Redskins’ latest dissatisfying season drew to a close, the organization reversed course anointing Kirk Cousins, Griffin’s longtime backup, as the starting quarterback for the season on Monday.

The decision should, in theory, bring to close a tumultuous three-plus seasons for Griffin, who could conceivably never play another down for the Redskins and whose future in the NFL, if it exists, will likely come with another team.

“We have a lot of respect for what he’s accomplished here in 2012, and moving forward here with the new offense — and he’s done some great things here,” coach Jay Gruden said Monday in discussing the choice. “Really, this is about Kirk doing an excellent job and winning the job, basically … but it’s my job as the coach to make that decision. That’s my decision, and I feel good about it, and I think our team feels good about it moving forward.”

The Redskins surrendered four draft picks — three first-round selections, as well as a second-round choice — to obtain the No. 2 overall pick from the St. Louis Rams in 2012, then turned it into Griffin. The heft of that bounty looked marginal during Griffin’s first season, when he set multiple team and league records, was named the offensive rookie of the year and helped the Redskins surge to their first NFC East title since 1999, but it soon became a weight neither he nor the team could shed.

That playoff appearance ended shortly after Griffin tore the ACL in his right knee for the second time, and the dynamic, exciting player who thrived in an offense orchestrated by coach Mike Shanahan and his son, Kyle Shanahan, never returned. His inability to adapt to the constraints of a professional system drove both coaches, as well as most of their staff, from the franchise after the 2013 season, and the Redskins’ brass turned to Gruden, a former quarterback, to resuscitate Griffin’s career.

It never happened. Griffin struggled to adapt to Gruden’s system leading into last season, then was sidelined after dislocating his left ankle in a Week 2 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. When he returned seven weeks later, his play was unremarkable; former tight end Chris Cooley, now a radio analyst for the team, remarked that Griffin’s decision-making “would make a high school coach mad.”

Benched because of his performance, but brought back in the final month after an injury to interim starter Colt McCoy, Griffin entered his first healthy, drama-free offseason since entering the league with the simple charge of getting better. Gruden, who originally intended to host a quarterback competition heading into this year, instead announced in February at the NFL combine that Griffin would be his starter; it was a decision, he said Monday, made “to put all the distractions aside.”

Though it had long been clear that team owner Dan Snyder was remarkably supportive of Griffin, Gruden and new general manager Scot McCloughan, hired in January, entered the offseason with an open mind. McCloughan reaffirmed to Griffin shortly after meeting him that the team’s success did not rest solely on the quarterback’s shoulders; instead, McCloughan would set about surrounding Griffin with enough talent to help him thrive.

Even then, Griffin’s progress was minimal, and on Monday, three days after Cousins stepped in for an injured Griffin and played well in a preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens, the Redskins made the switch. Griffin, who sustained a concussion in a preseason game on Aug. 20, has not yet been medically cleared to return, with Gruden noting that his status, as either the backup or the third-string quarterback, will be decided once he’s healthy.

Still, it’s apparent that McCoy will serve as Cousins’ backup, considering the penalties the Redskins could face if Griffin were to play again and get hurt. The team exercised a fifth-year option on Griffin’s contract for next season in May, and while it can still cut Griffin with no consequences, it would be on the hook for $16.155 million should Griffin fail to pass an exit physical when the season concludes.

That will also make it difficult for the Redskins to trade Griffin, unless he were to rework the terms of the contract with his new team. Because the team will still bear a $6.7 million salary cap hit this season, even releasing Griffin does no favors — except to free it from the potential distraction the situation could cause.

Griffin was not permitted by the team to speak to reporters in the locker room on Monday, as a public relations official shadowed Griffin’s every move for the better part of an hour. Cousins, meanwhile, called Griffin a “class act” when asked about his teammate and praised how he handled the decision.

It will now be up to Griffin to continue to be one — and to understand that the promise he showed three long years ago could only take him so far.

• Zac Boyer can be reached at zboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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