With little drama and very minimal competition, the battle for the Cleveland Browns' starting quarterback job came to an end just days before the team's first preseason game of the summer. Robert Griffin III, Washington's 2012 second overall draft pick turned oft-injured pariah, now has the chance to revitalize what was once a very promising career, with Browns head coach Hue Jackson handing him the baton. He will serve as the team's 25th starting quarterback since the Browns were brought back into the NFL in 1999.
Griffin spent the majority of the offseason working as Cleveland's first-team quarterback, and so Jackson's Monday announcement had been about as telegraphed as possible. But it's a sign that the Browns now have a clear direction they are taking on offense, as well as a vote of confidence in Griffin's ability to rebound with his new team. Griffin, the 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year, was electrifying in his first season, throwing for 3,200 yards and scoring 20 passing touchdowns to just five interceptions thrown, while rushing another 120 times for 815 yards and seven scores.
But a late-season knee injury, exacerbated even further when Washington's head coach at the time, Mike Shanahan, insisted Griffin play on it in the postseason, set in motion a chain of events, both injury-related and not, that ultimately led to Griffin's demise.
Benched again for injury reasons in 2013, Griffin then sat for games in 2014 because newly hired head coach Jay Gruden did not believe he was playing well. Gruden was right: Griffin, both uncomfortable with and held back from using the mobility that decimated defenses two years prior, threw four touchdowns to six interceptions in the seven games he appeared in that season. In 2015, he was relegated to third-string quarterback and worked only as a scout-team safety, throwing no passes. Unsurprisingly, the out-of-favor Griffin was released in the 2016 offseason.
It didn't take long for him to find a new home in Cleveland, with the team signing him to a two-year, $15 million deal less than three weeks later. Jackson, as offensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals and a one-time head coach of the Oakland Raiders, is no stranger to giving players second chances. And despite Griffin's previous reputation as self-involved and not a team player, those experiences have allowed him to learn from his mistakes and improve himself as a person and a teammate. Indeed, Jackson noted this when the Browns made the decision to go with Griffin: "Since he was signed back in March, Robert has made it clear through his actions that he is willing to do everything that has been asked of him to earn this role. Throughout this process he has gained the respect from his teammates, the coaching staff and the entire organization that is necessary for him to lead our offense and really the entire team."
Winning the starting job is only the first step in Griffin's comeback bid, however. For one, he needs to keep it—the Browns don't have such a laundry list of previous starters under center by coincidence, and for the past three years have seen three quarterbacks per season getting at least one start. For another, he has a young and inexperienced offense to preside over; potentially four rookie wideouts and a rookie tight end could be catching his passes this season, plus quarterback-turned-receiver Terrelle Pryor, only one year into his positional transition. Receiver Josh Gordon has been reinstated by the NFL after a year-long suspension for repeated violations of the league's substance-abuse policy. Gordon has proven to be one of the best players at his position, but it's been a long time since he's been on a football field.
Still, Jackson is a highly respected coach, not just by his charges and coworkers in Cleveland but around the league. Griffin being his hand-picked free agent signing and then being named his starting quarterback is a good, albeit early, indicator that the second chapter of Griffin's career could be far more rosy than recent seasons would have suggested. But as Griffin said upon being named the starter, "There's no sense of relief." No, that won't come for some time. But this is without question Griffin's next big chance, and potentially his last. If he can stay healthy and effective and start all 16 games for the Browns, it's a sign of progress for both Griffin's career and for the Browns, who have long needed stability under center.
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