There are moments on the Ravens practice field when Robert Griffin III must feel he’s watching a flesh-and-blood replay of his own life.
The rookie quarterback, a former Heisman Trophy winner, whips through improvised cuts faster than most players can run in a straight line. Every eye at the facility settles on him, and hardened veterans rave about qualities that can’t be taught.
That was Griffin six years ago. Today, it’s Lamar Jackson.
In 2018, Griffin is a 28-year-old veteran trying to reclaim a career that lost its luster after his initial burst of NFL stardom. Jackson could be the man who costs him a spot on the Ravens roster.
Anyone could forgive Griffin if a part of him wanted to undercut the kid.
Instead, listen to him on his young teammate: “I look at Lamar as a little brother. I’m going to take care of him. That’s my job. I’m about all things Baltimore Ravens, and Lamar is a big part of this team. His growth and maturity is going to be a big part of this team. So my job is to come in and help him as much as I possibly can, to compete with him to make him better, and be that big brother to him to help him go down the right path and know how to be a pro. I relish that opportunity. I don’t look at it as a bad thing at all.”
Such maturity explains why Ravens coaches have spent the past two months raving about Griffin, even if he isn’t receiving as many practice repetitions as anticipated when he signed with the team in April.
“Robert can still play at a high level. There’s no question about it. He’s healthy as well and certainly skilled, talented, smart. He’s had an excellent camp, and I will tell you, he’s done an excellent job with the reps he’s had of taking advantage of them,” Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. “That’s what you expect from all the players. The reps aren’t always quite fair. Life’s not fair. But take advantage of the reps you get, and make the most of those. He did that just beautifully.”
Griffin hasn’t been a full-time starting quarterback since 2013. He didn’t play a snap in 2015, started five undistinguished games for the Cleveland Browns in 2016 and failed to catch on with a team at all in 2017.
That wayward fate seemed unimaginable when he won the Heisman Trophy for Baylor in 2011, then torched the NFL as a rookie with the Washington Redskins.
But Griffin swears he never gave into bitterness or despair. He watched the NFL closely last year, making sure he stayed abreast of the league’s trends and happenings. He also worked out furiously in Orlando, Fla., with famed track and field coach Brooks Johnson and performance coach Tom Shaw.
“When I watched quarterbacks play, I would tell myself, ‘I know I can do that,’ ” Griffin said. “But I’m not just telling myself. I’m going to put the work in. That’s why, when I came here for my workout with the Ravens, they told me, ‘Hey, it’s like riding a bike for you.’ Well, it’s only like riding a bike because I put the work in.”
If he didn’t confront his difficulties with daily toil, he might have become “one of those guys at the bar, telling old war stories about what they used to do, how they got screwed.”
“I didn’t want to do that,” Griffin said.
When the Ravens announced they’d agreed to a one-year deal with him at their predraft press conference, Griffin felt reborn. He knew he was not coming to take Joe Flacco’s job, but he was back in.
Little did he know that within three weeks, the Ravens would draft their quarterback of the future, casting his status back into doubt. Jackson would eat up the repetitions a backup needs to prove himself during offseason workouts.
But Griffin said he didn’t waste a moment cursing his fate. Instead, he marvels at the talent collected in the Ravens’ quarterback room.
“It’s not very often you get a Super Bowl champ and Super Bowl MVP, two Heisman Trophy winners and an NFL Rookie of the Year in one room,” he said. “It’s very rare, so we have to maximize that. You can’t have too many high-quality guys in the room.”
He’s enjoyed his interactions with Flacco, the veteran and lead dog of the group.
“Joe knows I’m 28, so I am a young quarterback, but I’m also a seasoned veteran from the standpoint I’ve played a lot of football and experienced the highs and some lows,” Griffin said. “So I think Joe respects my voice in the meeting room. I try to relish, try to seize the moment when I’m in the meeting room with Joe or out on the field, just to be able to watch how he goes about things.”
But it’s clear he feels a special affinity for Jackson. He sees the rookie’s rare talent and hears the doubts from outside about how he’ll fit in the NFL game, how he’ll be vulnerable to injury as a running quarterback. It’s all so familiar.
“They had the same questions about me coming out, and I proved that my style does translate,” Griffin said, recalling that 2012 season when he led the Redskins to the playoffs with sensational run-pass efficiency. The world seemed to be his for the taking before injuries upset the narrative.
Those memories motivate him to help Jackson.
“I’ll be honest, I’ve told him multiple times that he cannot change who he is to try to fit anybody’s mold,” Griffin said. “He’s got to be himself, be the quarterback he is, do things the way he does them and then learn … through all the people in his corner, including myself, to develop his game to where he’s unstoppable. That’s the goal, and that’s why I’m here.”
They also discuss the joys and difficulties inherent to being an African-American quarterback.
“I think he trusts me, and I think that’s a big asset when we are on the field, when we are in the film room or whether we’re away from the field,” Griffin said. “I have his ear, and I’m able to guide him in ways that are very valuable for two African-American quarterbacks, to be able to communicate and discuss some of the things we go through in this league. Because it is a different experience, but at the same time, it’s not something to get down about. It’s something to relish. That’s what I’ve been preaching to him.”
Griffin takes the long view of his situation. He believes, deep in his gut, that he’s better than he was in 2012 — more poised in the pocket and far smarter about assessing defenses. Even if he doesn’t play a snap for the Ravens this year or doesn’t make the team at all, he maintains faith that if he practices well and mentors well, he’ll climb back to the top of the mountain.
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“Focus on the little things, let the big things fall in place,” he said. “The long-term goals, those will never change. Once you get into the league, everybody pretty much has the same goals — win a Super Bowl, be considered one of the greatest at your position. And luckily for me, quarterbacks are playing well into their 40s now.”