Losing in the NFL is never an easy proposition. When you are 3-7, like the Washington Redskins, and have just received a righteous beatdown from the previously 1-8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, at home, to the tune of 27-7 -- well, let's just say it's not a great time to have to stand in front of the media and explain yourself.
But what has happened over the past few days between quarterback Robert Griffin III and head coach Jay Gruden is like nothing I have ever seen before, and the consequences could go far beyond another week of bad press.
After a game in which he threw two interceptions, converted only four of 13 third-down situations and got sacked six times, Griffin, in addressing the media, said, "It takes 11 men." He went on to add, "If you want to look at the good teams in this league and the great quarterbacks, the Peytons (Manning) and the Aaron Rodgers, those guys don't play well if their guys don't play well."
Think for a minute: Can you imagine Manning or Rodgers using those words after a defeat? If you want to give RGIII the benefit of the doubt -- that what he was really attempting to say was, We all have to play better -- then at the very least you have to say he failed miserably (especially for someone who was working toward a master's degree in communications before he left Baylor for the NFL).
Unfortunately, this is not the first time Griffin has miscommunicated in his years as a pro.
Since the Redskins surrendered three first-round picks and a second-rounder for the right to draft RGIII second overall in 2012, the quarterback has seemed less mature than he was at Baylor, where he won the Heisman Trophy. Some have started to doubt his commitment and work habits. Former Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan decided he wanted to finish out last season with Kirk Cousins under center rather than Griffin. (Owner Daniel Snyder, of course, kept the quarterback and fired the coach.)
But even though Shanahan had essentially given up on Griffin, he never called out his quarterback the way current coach Jay Gruden called out Griffin following the Tampa Bay loss.
"His footwork was below average," Gruden said Monday. "He took three-step drops when he should have taken five. He took a one-step drop when he should have taken three, on a couple occasions, and that can't happen. He stepped up when he didn't have to step up, and he stepped into pressure. He read the wrong side of the field a couple times.
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"So, from his basic performance, just critiquing Robert, it's not even close to being good enough to what we expect from the quarterback position."
That's not throwing somebody under a bus; that's throwing somebody under a bus station.
Firstly, though, let's grant that both Griffin and Gruden were technically accurate in what they said.
The Redskins' pass protection was poor Sunday, and often Griffin's receivers weren't getting open. One of his picks came on a pass that Niles Paul bobbled right into defensive hands. But quarterbacks earn respect from their teammates by taking the heat for them, and that's been true since Otto Graham was quarterbacking the Browns. So RGIII only looks petulant, both inside and outside the locker room, by implying that the problem wasn't with him, but with the rest of the offense.
Gruden's words -- far more specific, and potentially, far more damaging -- were also witheringly accurate. After a spectacular rookie year in which Griffin showed all the potential of fellow high-end pick Andrew Luck -- and after a serious knee injury that abruptly ended that debut campaign -- he has regressed in basic passing fundamentals. Griffin once looked like he could be a complete quarterback with great running ability; too often this season, he's looked like a running quarterback with mediocre passing skills. Equally concerning: RGIII's lost some of the composure that he displayed during his last college year and first NFL year.
But considering Gruden's had a full offseason and more than half of a regular season to work with RGIII, the first-year head coach must take at least partial responsibility for his quarterback's fundamental flaws.
There are times when a coach feels the need to publicly criticize his best (or highest-paid) player, if only to send the message to the team that all 53 guys are accountable, and that no one is valued above the team. But when you speak that harshly of your quarterback, you walk a very fine line.
I can't say I have ever seen a coach make these kinds of comments about his franchise quarterback in public. It was a rookie (coaching) mistake -- and in making it, Gruden took a difficult situation and made it worse. If the comments needed to be made, they could have been made in private. The quarterback and coach have only spawned further distractions, through another week (at least) of follow-up questions about attitude and blame and dissension.
With that in mind, you have to return to the practical realities of the interdependent relationship between the play-caller and the quarterback. Gruden -- who calls all the offensive plays for the Redskins -- is the de facto offensive coordinator, so he and his QB are going to be joined at the hip all season long. Ideally, the quarterback sees the field through his coach's eyes, and the coach fully understands what the quarterback does and doesn't do well, inherently putting him in ideal situations to express himself on the field. At its best (see Sean Payton and Drew Brees, Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers), this coach-QB relationship becomes a kind of transcendent football partnership.
But if there isn't trust and mutual respect, it can be very hard to work together.
In Washington, it just got a lot harder. It will be a challenge for Gruden and RGIII to move forward in their relationship. They'll need to start working on that fast -- because their next game is a road contest against the rejuvenated San Francisco 49ers (with pass-rushing terror Aldon Smith back on board). If the Redskins perform the way they did against Tampa Bay, they might not make it across the 50.
So the Redskins find themselves facing another media storm, and you have to wonder not only about the choices made by Gruden and Griffin, but also about the culture of the franchise as a whole. This organization is well on its way to a fifth double-digit-loss campaign in six seasons. In fact, the last time Washington had consecutive winning seasons, Bill Clinton was president. It's starting to look like the next time this happens, whenever that may be, either Gruden or Griffin -- and perhaps both -- will be gone.