The face of the Ravens’ roster uncertainty stood on the sideline Thursday night in his his white No. 3 jersey, ready to play but no longer needed. Robert Griffin III, out of football only a year before, had done enough.
So said coach John Harbaugh shortly before the team’s preseason finale against the Washington Redskins, with whom Griffin had ascended to superstardom as a rookie dynamo before things fell apart. First it was his knee, then his hold on the Redskins’ No. 1 job under center, then his role in a league in which his talents no longer seemed needed.
After the Ravens’ 30-20 win, their 13th straight preseason victory, it was unclear whether Griffin’s future was secure on the Ravens’ 53-man roster, another team’s or at all. Harbaugh had said on the team’s pregame radio broadcast that first-round pick Lamar Jackson would play the first half, and that fourth-stringer Josh Woodrum would handle the second. Given Jackson’s still-under-development status and Griffin’s steady play throughout the preseason, Harbaugh had made his case for keeping Griffin past Saturday’s NFL deadline for the 53-man roster.
“Robert really didn't need to play,” he said after the win. “He’s played a lot so far, in our eyes, and he's a veteran.”
Should much be made of his absence? He shook his head.
The Ravens haven’t opened the season with three quarterbacks on their roster since 2009, as much a testament to starter Joe Flacco’s durability as the team’s desire to fill in the gaps around him, big and small. On Thursday, the team got one last good look at those players on the fringe.
Of the 89 players on the Ravens’ roster after Tuesday’s trade of reserve outside linebacker Kamalei Correa for an undisclosed Tennessee Titans draft pick, only about 49 were active.
On the night’s opening drive, Jackson jogged out onto the M&T Bank Stadium field with Jordan Lasley and Darren Waller to throw to and Andrew Donnal and Randin Crecelius to protect him, among others. When the Ravens defense took the field, likely cuts Kai Nacua and Darious Williams stood alongside certain future Ravens Tyus Bowser and Anthony Averett.
Perhaps few had taken as circuitous a path to the Ravens’ bubble as Griffin. The 2012 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in Washington, he started five games for the Cleveland Browns in 2016 before being released the following March. He was off an NFL roster last year, but he said he continued to prepare as if the next phone call might be the one welcoming him back.
Still, it was a long shot. When the Ravens brought him in this March, it was for a reported workout with then-free-agent wide receivers Willie Snead IV and Michael Floyd. Griffin was the “random guy there throwing to them,” he said to laughter at his introductory news conference. Two weeks later, the Ravens drafted Lamar Jackson. His future was guaranteed; Griffin’s was not, especially on a cheap one-year deal.
“I haven’t been told anything as far as my future here with this team or anywhere else,” Griffin said, surrounded postgame by a mass of reporters and cameras.
He was asked what his gut told him. “I want to be here. That’s what my gut says.”
It was Jackson who started Thursday against Griffin’s old team, not Griffin. Jackson’s first drive in his first NFL start was the game’s best of the first half, if not the game.
Undrafted rookie running back De’Lance Turner, a roster long shot, followed his 65-yard score Saturday against the Miami Dolphins with a 28-yarder. Jackson nickle-and-dimed the Redskins defense with his arm and his leg. When running back Mark Thompson’s 16-yard rushing touchdown was ruled just shy of the goal line, Jackson coasted into the end zone on a naked bootleg two plays later, somersaulting in for dramatic effect.
“It was just wide open on the outside,” he said. “The corner caged in, the safeties were down, and it was easy to walk in.”
After three straight preseason games of sub-47 percent accuracy, Jackson built on Saturday’s win with another accurate and careful performance through the air. He finished 9-for-15 for 109 yards — though an interception on a deep pass intended for wide receiver Breshad Perriman was overturned on review — and had three carries for 25 yards.
The Ravens settled only for a pair of field goals after the opening score, and Jackson pledged that they would “be better next time.”
“It felt pretty good,” he said of his half. “I felt like we should have scored more touchdowns than we did. We only scored 13 points and had two field goals. … That really wasn’t what we wanted.”
Elsewhere, the Ravens got contributions from veterans largely forgotten and rookies desperate to latch on. Tight end Mark Andrews had a 45-yard catch-and run in the second quarter, his first highlight-reel play of the preseason. Defensive lineman Patrick Ricard forced a fumble while being illegally held. Neither has to worry about his place in Week 1, only how much he’ll play then.
The back end of the Ravens’ depth chart provided the real intrigue. Kaare Vedvik hit all three of his field-goal attempts, one a 56-yarder. He’s missed just once this preseason. Might any team offer anything for a kicker they know the Ravens can’t keep?
Outside linebacker Bronson Kaufusi had two sacks, a performance that does not tend to pop roster bubbles. He finished with 10 tackles overall. But where had that Kaufusi been in the four previous games?
Nacua had maybe the game’s highlight, one that brought a horde of Ravens, including starting safety Eric Weddle, sweatpants and all, onto the field in celebration. The safety’s third-quarter rip-away of a ball intended for Redskins tight end Garrett Hudson kick-started a 23-yard interception return for a touchdown. But even with injured safety DeShon Elliott possibly lost for the season, had he done enough to remain on the roster?
Wide receiver Breshad Perriman, targeted four times, had three catches for 24 yards. Tight end Vince Mayle had a touchdown. Linebacker C.J. Board had 10 tackles. They wouldn’t have to wait long to know whether that was enough.
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“I’m proud of them,” Harbaugh said of the team. “I think we’re 13-0 in the last 13. We’ve won ’em all in the preseason. So we're not hanging our hat on that. I think some sarcastic website out there can make of it what they want based on these comments, but I don't really care. You play the game to win. I’m proud of these guys because they’ve won five preseason games. That’s something.”