With the suspension saga of Tom Brady nearly behind it, the NFL has officially devolved into a yearlong drama worthy of a Shakespeare play. As mind-numbing as that sideshow was, it almost pales in comparison to the latest actors to take center stage: D.C’s own head coach Jay Gruden and owner Daniel Snyder. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s “Richard III”: “A quarterback! A quarterback! Our kingdom for a quarterback!”
Three years ago, Snyder gave the St. Louis Rams a king’s ransom for the rights to draft Robert Griffin III, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from Baylor who was heralded as franchise player and a sure success. Snyder gave up three first-round picks to St. Louis for a quarterback who, as of this week, finds himself an injured, mistreated benchwarmer behind former backup Kirk Cousins. While Griffin’s performance has been a near 180 from his stellar rookie season in 2012 when he led Washington to the playoffs, he is not wholly responsible for his downfall. Snyder and Gruden — two beacons of incompetence whose approval ratings are almost guaranteed to be lower than those of Congress — also share some of the blame.
After Snyder dismissed former coach Mike Shanahan following the 2013 season, Gruden sold Snyder on his ability to work with RGIII and was hired in January 2014. To his credit, Gruden had some success with the Cincinnati Bengals as their offensive coordinator. He helped lead the team to the playoffs in 2012 and 2013, though they failed to win a game or produce much offense in January.
In theory, Gruden was supposed to help RGIII turn into a classic pocket passer so he could avoid riskier scrambling plays like those that had already caused him to tear his ACL and suffer a concussion. This theory did not continue past last season’s training camp. Gruden began to doubt RGIII before the regular season even began and when Griffin dislocated his ankle on opening day, Gruden had a legitimate reason to start Cousins, his preferred quarterback.
Griffin became healthy again in November and was given his job back, but that was largely because of Snyder and general manager Bruce Allen’s intervention; Gruden had no desire to reinsert RGIII into the starting role. Griffin continued to struggle, and Snyder was steadfast in his faith, but Gruden finally benched Griffin in late November as the team continued to lose. Up to this point, Gruden was simply caught between a failing quarterback and an incompetent, micro-managing owner. While players must take responsibility for their performances, the lack of improvement should also say something about the quality, or lack thereof, of the coach.
The Patriots, media debates about the ideal deal gas law and conspiracy theories dominated the summer, but Washington reclaimed the spotlight on the night of August 20, when the Lions visited Washington for a meaningless preseason game and thrashed Griffin by hitting him six times in eight drop-backs. To the surprise and chagrin of many, Gruden sent Griffin out on the field again, and Griffin promptly suffered a concussion while trying to recover a mishandled snap. One week later, Griffin was supposedly cleared to play in the next pointless exhibition game, but Washington retracted that report a day later and ruled Griffin out for another week or more. On Monday, Gruden announced that Cousins would be the team’s permanent starter —regardless of Griffin’s health.
In the comedy of errors that is the Washington organization, it is difficult to determine who is most at fault. Gruden must accept responsibility for sending Griffin back into a worthless game when he had already spent most of the evening on the ground because of an ineffective offensive line. Such a move was probably not intentional, but the very fact there is even a debate about this is deplorable and a sign that Gruden is not fit to lead an NFL team.
Snyder is also responsible because he hired Gruden in the first place, essentially forced Gruden to start Griffin and continues to remain adamant about Griffin’s future in Washington. Snyder is far too proud to admit he mortgaged the future of the franchise for a benchwarmer, but why should he start his mea culpa now? His entire tenure as owner has been one expensive mistake after another without any serious change, including the epithet of a nickname. His style of dictating playing time and keeping a stranglehold on personnel decisions is legendary — and it is clear his football acumen has not matured over the years. Ultimately, he is the source of the futility that has tarnished a once-prominent franchise.
With the kickoff to the 2015 season less than 10 days away, hope should be used sparingly; now begins another winter of Washington discontent.
Michael Ippolito is a junior in the College. The Water Cooler appears every Friday.