Wednesday, November 26, 2014

RG3: Now We Know How It Ended

By: Ben Johnson

Ever since Robert Griffin put a burgundy hat on his head and walked towards the 2012 draft podium to shake the NFL commissioner’s hand, I’ve been wondering how the Washington team would screw this up. Griffin was, at the time, and may yet still be someday, an electric football talent, lightning in a bottle. He was a smiling, aw shucks kid with military parents, a live arm, blazing speed, toughness, and a strong work ethic. The potential was all there, stacked up in front of your eyeballs monumentally like a pyramid or a great wall, not only on the football field, but off it. This guy was going to be good, and he was heading to Washington to become the face of the least good franchise in major sports, the one with the racist nickname and owner whose avariciousness is so severe and obvious as to set him apart from the war-criminal like barony of other NFL team owners.

Either the team was going to ruin this, or Griffin was going to be so good that even this swampy mess of an organization would be transformed by it. As a longtime observer of the team, I knew there was not enough goodness in the universe, no innocence pure enough to overcome the evil that lurks in the hearts of men whose occupation involves having their checks signed by Dan Snyder. I knew. The team was going to ruin this guy. I just didn’t know how yet.

Now I know, and the answer is somehow even more depressing than I thought it was going to be.

In Griffin’s tantalizing 2012 rookie season, it was immediately apparent that the prolific read-option offense he piloted was predicated on his abilities. The whole engine of that offense is to leave a key defender unblocked and force that unblocked rusher to commit to something that does not exist, creating an 11-on-10 advantage elsewhere on the field. Some hapless defensive end takes a half step toward running back Alfred Morris, and Griffin keeps the ball, either to run past the outstretched arms of a linebacker crashing into the backfield or dump to a receiver slanting through unprotected ground vacated by said linebacker in the short middle of the field. If the defense is disciplined about containing the edge, Morris would plunge up the middle like a knife through butter, exploiting large gaps. The offense when working properly was a beauteous feat of coordinated daredevilry, a weird machine of military tactics not seen since the game room in Ender’s Game, when Ender Wiggins tied tension wire around the diminutive Bean and threw him around the wide of a floating space cube for reconnaissance, exposed to enemy fire, only to whip him back around again. But this being football and not some weird science fiction fever dream concocted by a neo-fascist, at least not the wish-fulfillment version, it was also a huge risk, and utterly dependent on Griffin’s ability to elude gigantic and powerful men bearing down on him with malicious intent. Every single play.

This, then, is how the team deployed its new toy. It was mesmerizing. It was dangerous. It was wholly unsustainable. It was giddy and fun the way it is giddy and fun to do the one thing most likely to break a new toy within hours of its unboxing. Wow, cool, let’s see if it can fly over the house.

For his part, and whether this is to his credit or not will be forever unclear, Griffin was game. He smiled his way through Subway commercials and concussive hits. He dove headfirst for no reason and the got up and then danced into the end zone on the next play. After games where the entire fan base sat gawking in horror, every touchdown celebration fueled with extra enthusiasm by the added relief of having spent one more offensive series not watching this kid die on a football field, every big hit coming with an instantly and totally deflating feeling that “that could have be the one that will take him away from us,” the burden of knowledge that such a one with this kid is possible, likely, inevitable. After the games he’d try to say the right things about protecting the ball and himself, and then next week he’d run right back out onto the field and play in that offense, the one explicitly designed not to protect him at all. We got twelve and half games of this until he hurt his knee, and then three more on a bad leg, and then both his leg and career went sideways, the way it’s not supposed to go.

If you are interested enough in football to even be reading this, you’ve probably already heard more about Griffin than you’d probably care to. He’s a lightning rod for hot sports takes. He’s been labelled a “cornball brother,” a selfish, petulant non-leader of men, who “doesn’t put in the time,” who is potentially a douchebag, a market-researched branding opportunist whose significant other rides in limousines provided by his team’s owner while the rest of the team’s significant others, presumably, do not. He might be those things, for all I know. He’s also been, demonstrably, a guy whose confidence in himself and his own abilities is such that he would demand to play on a broken leg. And he is currently 24 years old. If you were 24 years old and somebody told you they would pay you millions of dollars to design a logo based on your name and put it on t-shirts for strangers to wear, what would you do?

Ultimately I do not care about the extent to which Griffin is a douchebag. He plays football for a living. He’s a jock. Jocks are douchebags, with only very few exceptions. They hang out in the fucking gym all day. When was the last time you saw a dude who hangs out at the gym all day and thought “I would like to strike up a conversation with that person about the relevant news topics of the day”?

What’s interesting to me is the prosaic ways in which the organization Griffin works for has turned his prodigious talent into a career arc that was a foregone denouement the instant Roger Goodell said “with the second pick in the 2012 NFL draft, the Washington…” and then his name. It was not any one thing that went wrong. Griffin’s eventual failure was instead a cumulative natural outcropping of the full litany of usual things that this organization always does wrong. It turned out there was no “how are they going to screw this up?” Instead it was “how will their latent screwed-upness manifest itself in this particular situation?” Screwed up is the status quo in Washington. They didn’t have to actually do anything to ruin the RG3 experience. All they needed was to have RG3 at their disposal in the first place.

But to the extent that somebody somewhere within this team did do something in this case, I see the following blunders as looming largest:

1. Burdening Griffin immediately with unreasonable expectations, and taking zero steps to manage those expectations.

2. Trading away two future first round draft picks to get him which could, theoretically, have been used on players who would have made the team as a whole better, lessening the burden on Griffin.

3. Reshuffling their albatross player contracts in the uncapped 2010 season in an effort to hastily erase a mountain of personnel mistakes, which incurred the wrath of the NFL’s other owners and resulted in an unprecedented $36 million reduction in their available salary cap over the course of the 2012 and 2013 seasons. This ensured that the bottom half of the team’s roster would be cheaper and therefore (near-historically) worse than any other team in the league. This also increased the pressure on Griffin.

4. Creating a workplace environment without trust, which routinely causes an “every man for himself” approach among managers and employees, leading to an organization-wide focus on establishing internal political retrenchments and escaping blame with one’s career intact rather than, you know, actually building a good football team. This leads to decisions such as backstabbing media leaks, and ensuing backtracking, of endlessly debatable credibility, and bilious explosions of multidirectional recriminations which may have been designed to deflect attention from a family member’s possible shortcomings as an offensive coordinator. It leads to decisions such as “let’s put the rookie in, and let’s design a high octane offense around the idea that he’s difficult to tackle even if there is no direct impediment to the act of tackling him.” It leads to decisions such as “we have to fire our coach since he basically dared us to.” The whole team culture is “cover your ass, because this is a goddamn circus and we’re not going to win enough games to keep our jobs,” and that culture, among its many other systematic impediments to success, is disruptive to the normal course of developing and nurturing a young football player. Ideally such a process would have some degree of continuity and adherence to long-term goals, and tolerate a certain amount of failure as a short term price of growth.

5. Managing Griffin’s image and media presence with the league’s, and maybe the world’s, single least tactful and self-aware public relations apparatus.

6. Being a part of a league which does not care about the safety of its players but also going the extra mile to not specifically care about the safety of this particular player, which is totally mystifying given the importance placed on him by the organization.

And so when looking at Robert Griffin’s tenure in Washington, we have something like what we have now, a “what happened” narrative so simultaneously complicated and boring it’s easiest just to say “he got hurt and then he wasn’t good anymore” and then move on with our lives. This amounts to an internalization of the sort of soul-deep oppressive C.Y.A. that this team spills all over everybody it touches. The Redskins, (and they are called that, “REDSKINS,” a racial epithet which the team hopes you will spend $50 on a t-shirt for the right to display on your chest) did not ruin RG3 so much as they selected him to be their quarterback, and they will ruin you, too, if you choose to root for their success on the football field or, especially, off it.

Robert Griffin has by now proven a few things. He's proven that there is no such thing as a player so good he can overcome the handicap of being on this team. He's proven that the Redskins are not good enough for Robert Griffin, the concept of Robert Griffin, or any future Robert Griffin. He's proven that my instincts were right when I saw every highlight of his through a lens of dread. And he's proven that this is now something other than a football team, playing a sport other than football, employing men whose job is to have a job first and become a good football team a dim, distant, often invisible second.