When Bill Polian was in his final months as president of the Indianapolis Colts and scouting players for the team to take with what would become the first overall pick of the 2012 NFL Draft -- a selection that Polian's successor, Ryan Grigson, would end up making -- he presented owner Jim Irsay with an assessment of Robert Griffin III.
He told Irsay that Griffin was a can't-miss player, maybe a once-in-a-lifetime prospect. And, in measuring the two players between whom Irsay would pick, Polian said that both Andrew Luck and Griffin would "lead you to the promised land."
Polian told that story nearly two years ago, when Griffin was in the throes of his electrifying rookie season, when it was conceivable to imagine that Irsay had chosen incorrectly in opting for Luck. Irsay had told Polian back then that he preferred Luck because Luck, more of a classic pocket signal-caller, would likely have a longer career than Griffin, who would sustain more hits as a running quarterback.
Watching Griffin dislocate his ankle Sunday reminded me of that reminiscence by Polian. Irsay knew Griffin was a mobile player and would probably always, at his core, have to be one to be his best self. Washington had embarked on an effort to make him a pocket passer -- Griffin wanted to try it, too, because he knew he had to preserve himself -- but now, with Griffin sidelined again, the experiment is off. First-year coach Jay Gruden will get a chance to see backup Kirk Cousins for an extended period, while the Washington front office is in for a long autumn of wondering what will become of the player they assumed would be the face of the franchise for at least a decade.
The NFL had a miserable week last week, one that called into question the credibility of its most powerful leaders, that exposed, in video and pictures, the violence some of its players carry home, that strained the loyalty of even some of its most fervent fans. The games were supposed to be a respite -- and in many places, they were. The Dallas Cowboys' defense hasn't been as bad as feared, and the Seattle Seahawks' defense wasn't as good as expected against the San Diego Chargers. The Cleveland Browns got their first victory of the season with the hometown quarterback in charge, while his flashier teammate was limited to a cameo. The Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers saved themselves with staggeringcomebacks. The Buffalo Billsascended to 2-0 to cap a week in Western New York that was as glorious as the one in the glass tower in midtown Manhattan was disturbing.
But for all the jubilation over Washington's home victory Sunday, for all the anticipation that Cousins could finally become the starter, the team goes forward now under a cloud that might cast shadows over the future of the entire franchise. Week 2 has featured serious injuries to stars of other teams, like the Bengals' A.J. Green, the Dolphins' Knowshon Moreno, the Buccaneers' Gerald McCoy, the Giants' Jon Beason, the Jets' Eric Decker and many more. But Griffin's will have the most impact, because of what has come before it -- the epic trade that sent three first-round picks and a second-rounder to the St. Louis Rams in exchange for the right to draft Griffin, the devastating knee injury that ended Griffin's rookie season in a playoff loss -- and what could come now if Cousins flourishes for however long Griffin is absent.
Before the game even began, The Washington Post reported that there were those in the football organization who believed it could take one or two seasons for Griffin to fully adapt to the pocket game. On Sunday night, the Post reported that Gruden had privately believed Cousins was better suited to his offense all along, although he gamely continued to play Griffin because of all that the 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year's stature entailed. That almost certainly includes owner Daniel Snyder's embrace of Griffin, professionally and personally, and the enormous price the franchise paid to acquire his services.
After the game, Gruden said Cousins "has a skill set I feel like is very much suited for what we do."
If Griffin and Cousins were both healthy at the same time, there would likely be no controversy, barring a complete collapse in Washington. Griffin is the more dynamic and gifted player. But the team has to face a stark reality: He might never be healthy enough for long enough to show it, and that opens the door to wonder if Cousins, depending on how he performs now, is the better and safer long-term answer.
"There are some players that just are injury prone," said a former executive for a team with no stake in Griffin's development who has closely watched him since he was a draft prospect. "I have said I was concerned about his ability to take hits and stay healthy because of his body build in general."
It is unclear, for now, how long Griffin will be out -- the news Monday was that an MRI revealed no fracture -- but even if he can return to the field at some point this season, he is compromised. This stands to be his second consecutive interrupted campaign. And he will go into the 2015 season with only that year remaining on his rookie contract. If Griffin misses any significant length of time next fall, it will be impossible for the franchise's decision makers to project his value going forward, making it difficult to contemplate keeping him off the free agent market in 2016 -- if, in fact, they want to keep him at all.
It would have been a laughable concept a few years ago, and maybe even a few weeks ago. At his best, Griffin remains a scintillating, creative player. He was using his legs to extend a play -- and to complete a pass -- even as he got hurt Sunday. That ability to make something out of nothing is why Snyder and general manager Bruce Allen and then-coach Mike Shanahan wanted him in 2012. The sight of him lying on the field in agony, his ankle turned grotesquely the wrong way, is why Irsay feared him.
Don't write off Griffin just yet, though. Cousins played very well Sunday, considering he had just seconds to run onto the field as Griffin remained prone, just out of bounds, with Dr. James Andrews hovering over him. Cousins completed his first 12 attempts and wound up going 22 of 33 for 250 yards and two touchdowns, notching a passer rating of 109.4. But that was against the Jacksonville Jaguars, who allowed 55 consecutive points to be scored against them between the second half of their season opener against Philadelphia and the first half in Washington. A better gauge might come next week, when Washington visits the Eagles.
Depending on the medical reports this week, the Eagles might also provide Washington with a cautionary tale. They, after all, once had a running quarterback who struggled through years of injuries. And when Michael Vick was hurt last year, the backup, Nick Foles, took over. And never relinquished the job again.