Robert Griffin III could have given a generic answer about seeking the best opportunity in free agency. No one — neither the teammates packing garbage bags around him nor the Ravens executives forging their plans for 2019 — would have blamed him.
Instead, Griffin explained exactly why he’d be happy to return to Baltimore as a backup quarterback next season.
“I have a good grasp of what this team is trying to do,” he said the day after the Ravens’ season ended against the Los Angeles Chargers. “I’d love to help Lamar [Jackson] continue to develop and also be available and ready to play.”
His words explained volumes about the self-image Griffin embraced in 2018. If his story were not so familiar, you never would have guessed that he once reigned as a Heisman Trophy winner or carried the fate of the Washington Redskins on his shoulders. He accepted that he would rarely see the field for the Ravens and that his greatest value might be in mentoring Jackson, the rookie whose experiences reminded Griffin of his own.
For example, he knew precisely what to say to Jackson as the 21-year-old processed the most disappointing performance of his young career in the 23-17 loss to the Chargers. He had suffered a similar playoff disappointment as a rookie six years earlier.
“He was sitting on his stool, and I walked up to him and said, ‘I was proud of the way you finished,’” Griffin recalled. “At the end of the day, there’s never been any quit in anybody in this locker room, so when you’re at the helm and you’re the quarterback, you also have to show that. Throughout his career, Joe [Flacco] has done that. He’s played through injuries. Throughout my career, I’ve done that and played through injuries. So I think we were both proud of him for the way that he fought through the adversity he had early in the game and finished strong in the fourth quarter. I think that’s a true testament to his character and to the type of guy and player he can be going forward.”
It might seem strange to say of a guy who was active for just four games and played 21 snaps all season, but Griffin accomplished what he wanted to in 2018.
At this time last year, he was working out on his own, hoping to convince a team to give him a shot after he spent the entire 2017 season away from the NFL. The Ravens gave him that chance, and he has expressed gratitude ever since, even if he never envisioned himself as a third-string quarterback.
The fit was equally good for the team. After almost every practice, Griffin worked with Jackson and quarterbacks coach James Urban as they drilled the rookie on the finer points of NFL passing. When Flacco went out with a hip injury after Week 9, Griffin slotted in as the perfect backup who could mimic Jackson’s skills in the Ravens’ revamped, run-first offense.
With Flacco likely headed to another team this offseason, it’s that backup role Griffin could see himself filling in 2019 and perhaps beyond.
“This offense is suited to my skill set,” he said. “I can run really any offense now that I’m six years deep in the league and kind of have an understanding of what’s going on. But at the same time, I’ve just got to make the right decision, not only for myself but to be in the right situation.”
He praised the creativity of offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and assistant head coach Greg Roman as they shaped their schemes around Jackson’s abilities.
Ravens coaches raved about Griffin’s work from offseason workouts on. Though head coach John Harbaugh hasn’t talked explicitly about Griffin’s future, he expressed repeated appreciation for the former star’s team-first mentality.
“We played against ‘R.G.’ a couple of times,” Harbaugh said during the season. “We defended him. We saw him from that perspective, but when you see a guy on your own team, you gain kind of a whole new appreciation, and he’s a pro, a very talented player.”
It’s not that Griffin has abandoned the idea of winning a starting job in another city. “I think the No. 1 priority is just taking care of my family and doing what’s right,” he said. “So from that standpoint, if the opportunity is out there for me to compete to be a starter or be a starter, you’ve definitely got to weigh those options.”
He played this season on a one-year, $1 million deal. He’ll likely seek more money and perhaps more security this time around.
But the odds are against Griffin finding a team that will give him the inside track to become a No. 1 quarterback. He last started an NFL game — for a Cleveland Browns team that finished 1-15 — in 2016. He last played as a full-time starter in 2013, when he was 23 years old and one season removed from winning Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Griffin believes he’s better than he was then, still quick and capable of making difficult NFL throws but more prepared to run any type of offense. He’s also realistic as he comes up on his 29th birthday next month.
“Will there be other opportunities around the league?” he said. “I don’t know. I’ll just continue to work hard every day and see what happens. But I would love to be back, no doubt.”
His connection to Jackson is a significant part of that. The parallels in their careers — from the Heisman Trophies both won to the playoff pushes both led as NFL rookies — feel uncanny at times. As Griffin noted Monday, he also heard the boos and calls for another quarterback that Jackson endured during the lowest moments of the Chargers game.
In Washington, he went from savior to divisive figure as injuries derailed his performance and opened the door to backup Kirk Cousins.
“I’ve had it happen for a guy who wasn’t a Super Bowl MVP,” Griffin said, alluding to the calls for Cousins to replace him in Washington. “So it’s something you can’t take personally, and we’re sitting there right next to [Jackson], telling him don’t worry about that. As soon as he throws a touchdown pass and runs for a 10-yard gain … everyone’s going to be cheering. That’s what it comes down to.”
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If circumstances align, Griffin believes he has more wisdom to offer.