Hobbling on a busted wheel in his debut playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks, Robert Griffin III’s eventual collapse into a crumpled heap felt inevitable. His knee and the Washington Redskins playoff hopes were shredded by FedExField mud; the tearing of multiple major ligaments in Griffin’s knee putting an end to what had been one of the most captivating rookie seasons in recent memory.
Nothing has been the same for Griffin since. After missing all of the 2013 preseason, he made a return to the gridiron for Washington’s Week 1 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. It didn’t get much better from there. The NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2012 ended up sitting the final three games of the 2013 to protect his long-term health, a turn of events which would have seemed impossible just a year earlier. He had gone from deity — dubbed “Black Jesus” by teammate Fred Davis — to dejected.
Maybe he’s better off that way.
Griffin is no stranger to overcoming adversity. After a promising freshman season at Baylor in which he earned Big 12 Offensive Freshman of The Year honors, he sustained a tear to his ACL during his sophomore season in 2009. An injury of that magnitude for young players is often enough to quell their professional dreams. For Griffin, it simply marked an opportunity for rebirth.
His 2011 campaign, punctuated with a bowl win and a Heisman Trophy, was the stuff of legends. Griffin took a Baylor team that was picked sixth in their conference preseason poll and led them to the most wins in school history, shattering individual records along the way. It was hard not to hop on the bandwagon — Griffin’s on-field exploits were rightly lauded, but it was his demeanor and poise off of it that had the press singing his praises. He was his high school’s class president and an Olympic-level hurdler, a young man who merged academia and athletics with a glowing smile and grace beyond his years.
That was forgotten amid adversity in D.C. last season. Washington’s offense, predicated on the multi-faceted talents of its star quarterback, lost the cohesion and inventiveness of the 2012 season, clearly devolving into a more conservative, slapdash version of its former self.
For this season, new coach Jay Gruden is in town, renowned for his work with Andy Dalton in Cincinnati. Coach and quarterback have been complimentary of one another in the months leading up to training camp, even spending down time together off the field. More importantly for Griffin, there are new faces that will stand with him shoulder-to-shoulder and begin to piece together what the Redskins thought they had in 2012.
That starts in the trenches. Griffin stood behind a broken, battered offensive line without the benefit of a fully-recovered knee last season, taking big hits early and often. GM Bruce Allen sought to change that, acquiring a starting guard (Shawn Lauvao) in free agency and a pair of linemen (Morgan Moses, Spencer Long) in the third round of the NFL Draft, in addition to sliding guard Kory Lichtensteiger over to center. When he’s asked to stand back in the pocket, better protection will allow Griffin to make his reads without second-guessing whether he’s about to get walloped by a blitz.
Assuming he’s able to get the ball out of his hands, he’ll be throwing to some legitimate playmakers, none more notable than former division rival DeSean Jackson. Jackson’s tenure in Philadelphia was up and down at times, but he is nonetheless a dangerous weapon coming off a career-best year in Chip Kelly’s attack. His top-end speed will stretch defenses for Washington, opening up routes underneath and presenting the best downfield target Griffin has had since leaving the friendly confines of Waco, Tex.
To pick Griffin to win a Comeback Player of The Year award, though, you have to believe in him, not the ancillary pieces around him. While Griffin wasn’t blameless in the collapse, remember that he was asked to play the league’s most important position without reestablishing comfort in his legs, never finding the comfort zone between protecting his rehabbed body and taking advantage of his prodigious athletic talent. He wasn’t the first and won’t be the last player who struggles to gain confidence in his body after a major injury; the Adrian Petersons of the world are the exception, not the rule.
That doesn’t erase the storybook seasons he created at two separate levels, reducing defenses to putty with his feet and a flick of his wrist. As much as his critics would like you to believe he has already been “figured out” after year two, one season didn’t vaporize his credentials as a top-notch quarterback prospect and leader, titles that were years in the making. He is by all accounts a hard-working, studious young man with extraordinary gifts, and a new year gives him a blank slate and fresher legs with which to work.
If you want to bet against Griffin, go ahead. Just remember that he has collected himself during adversity before, only to rise better and brighter than ever. When he’s accepting the 2014-15 Comeback Player of the Year award at the NFL’s yearly gala, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Follow Kyle on Twitter at @NeubeckNBA