The new marriage between Robert Griffin III and the Cleveland Browns is an arrangement that suits both parties. If people are only as faithful as their options, both RG III and Cleveland should be in love with each other. Griffin faced an uncertain future; I wrote on Monday that his market appeared to be the Browns or bust, and with little interest elsewhere around the league, Cleveland was the most inviting seat available in terms of Griffin rebuilding his career. And for the perennially rebuilding Browns, Griffin was the highest-upside option available on the market.
Let’s run through the questions circulating after Griffin’s signing to get a sense of how Griffin might be able to kick-start his stalled career in Ohio. First, though, let’s figure out the deal from Cleveland’s perspective:
Why did the Browns sign Griffin?
Before Thursday, Cleveland’s depth chart at quarterback consisted of Josh McCown, Austin Davis, Connor Shaw, and Pat Devlin. You can make a case that Davis deserved more of a look, given that he was relatively competent during his time with the Rams in 2014, but he struggled last season and probably isn’t in line for more time as some team’s starting quarterback. McCown was a perfectly reasonable backup quarterback last year, throwing 12 touchdowns against four interceptions while posting a 53.9 Total QBR, but he is also 36 years old — and the nominal starter for a team that is beginning yet another rebuild. Even if he’s the best option for a team or two — and you could make a case that Denver should consider looking McCown’s way if the Browns cut him — he would be a placeholder for these Browns.
It’s no surprise the Browns wanted to add a quarterback, then. They’ve been linked to Carson Wentz and Jared Goff with the second overall pick in the draft, but more on them in a minute. If they wanted to add a professional quarterback to their roster, the Browns didn’t really have a better option than Griffin. Going into the market for somebody like Ryan Fitzpatrick would have been a stopgap in the same vein as McCown. Trade targets like Colin Kaepernick and Mike Glennon have their own warts and would have cost the Browns at least one draft pick, probably a third- (Kaepernick) or fourth-round (Glennon) selection. And in the latter case, the Browns only would have had the Tampa Bay backup for one season before Glennon hit free agency.
Griffin’s the best option of the bunch in a few ways. He obviously has more long-term upside than the Fitzpatricks of the world. On a two-year, $15-million deal with $6.75 million in guarantees, the Browns could pay less for two years of RG III than they would have for one season of Kaepernick, while retaining some leverage with a team-friendly $6 million base salary in the second year of the deal if Griffin does turn his career around in 2016. There’s no guaranteed money for Griffin in 2017, making it easy for the Browns to move on if he disappoints.
And because Washington picked up Griffin’s fifth-year option last year before subsequently releasing him this offseason, the Browns will not miss out on a compensatory pick by signing the former Heisman Trophy winner and rookie of the year. (Had Washington declined Griffin’s option, as the Seahawks did with Bruce Irvin, they would have been entitled to a comp pick, probably in the fourth round.) The Browns’ offseason moves suggest they’re sensitive to accruing compensatory picks, and the Griffin signing leaves their five-pick haul untouched.
What went so wrong for Griffin in Washington? Is he completely washed?
How much time do you have? The short version: Griffin was transcendent during his rookie season, at the helm of a scheme that incorporated concepts from his Baylor playbook to flummox opposing defenses. Defenses grew more comfortable seeing the read-option and weren’t quite as terrified of Griffin as a runner, with injuries sapping his athleticism and a new coaching staff installing a different scheme.
By the end of 2014, Griffin was a fundamentally flawed quarterback, struggling with any semblance of comfort or presence in the pocket and having that impact in every part of his game. Griffin’s mechanics were out of whack, his decision-making was spotty and his confidence was shot. He was broken. That’s the last RG III we saw, given that he sat behind Kirk Cousins for the entire 2015 season.
Of course, it’s possible Griffin is done, that the sacrifices he made in playing through injuries during the 2012 season will prevent him from being that sort of contributor ever again. It would hardly be unprecedented, though, for a quarterback to look finished (in part because of injuries) and subsequently revitalize his career under a better coach in a new location. Kurt Warner was dumped by the Rams and Giants — having thrown 10 touchdowns against 16 picks over a three-year stretch — before returning to stardom in Arizona. Randall Cunningham suffered multiple injuries and was out of football before making his way back to the Pro Bowl with the Vikings. And Griffin is still only 26, far younger than those passers were before they rebuilt their careers.
The argument that Griffin was a creation of his time, that he could only have been useful in that brief moment in which the league wasn’t ready for his offense? I’m skeptical. It’s not as if Griffin was some anonymous player whom the NFL had foisted off as irrelevant before he emerged as an unlikely fit; he was the consensus No. 2 pick in a deep 2012 draft, a franchise quarterback the league valued as a meaningful asset in any scheme. He might be irreparably broken, in the way that quarterbacks like Tim Couch and David Carr were after years of having bad habits and nasty outcomes drilled into the ends of their drops. He might also need a fresh start and a patient coach.
Is Cleveland a good place for Griffin to succeed?
Getting past the jokes about whether the Browns are a good place for anybody to succeed, it’s hard to really imagine a better landing point for Griffin in terms of the coaching staff than the head coach he’s about to hook up with in Cleveland. Outside of Chip Kelly (who briefly recruited Griffin in college) or Art Briles, Hue Jackson would be in the top tier of coaches to help reconstruct RG III as a viable NFL quarterback.
Jackson hasn’t received credit for it since taking over (coincidentally) for Jay Gruden, but during his time as the offensive coordinator in Cincinnati, the former Raiders head coach was one of the most creative and schematically-aggressive coaches in all of football, producing an offense that led the league in DVOA last year. My colleague Matt Bowen noted Jackson’s emphasis on RPOs (run-pass options, or packaged plays), a tendency that Jackson began to show in 2014 but had to put on ice without Tyler Eifert, who missed virtually the entire season because of an elbow injury.
With Eifert back in the fold in 2015, Jackson constructed a shockingly effective attack with Andy Dalton and AJ McCarron at the helm. Eifert gave Jackson a pivot to work the offense from, a tight end who was devastating on seam routes and working after the catch on stick routes. Jackson also looked past Dalton’s weaknesses to play toward the Cincinnati starter’s strengths. Dalton’s historically struggled against the blitz, so Jackson had him get the ball out quicker; he went from averaging 2.33 seconds per pass under Gruden to 2.23 seconds per pass under Jackson, the quickest rate in all of football.
For a guy who was really one of the first (if not the first) college quarterbacks to run the inverted veer at school, Dalton wasn’t commonly thought of as a mobile quarterback. Jackson made Dalton’s running a bigger part of Cincinnati’s offense. Strip out the kneels that are inexplicably still counted as rushing attempts in the NFL, and Dalton averaged 2.1 rush attempts per game during his time with Gruden and 3.2 carries per game under Jackson. It’s not a huge quantitative difference, but Dalton was noticeably a bigger part of the scheme in terms of designed runs and reads. That seems to play into RG III’s strengths.
And, of course, it’s pretty clear Dalton grew dramatically during his time with Jackson. His numbers are far more impressive in Jackson’s two years at the helm: