by Daniel Shiferaw, special to Breaking Burgundy
The move was supposed to be about getting the best player available while adding depth in an area of need. Nothing more, nothing less.
At least, that's how the Washington Redskins and then-head coach Mike Shanahan publicly spun the decision to select Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins with the 102nd overall pick of the 2012 NFL Draft.
Even though it seemed like a reasonable explanation to many at the time, some pundits were perplexed that a team willing to move heaven and earth to acquire 2011 Heisman winner Robert Griffin III would still draft another signal caller before the late rounds. The curious choice spawned a bevy of hot takes, some that pondered the exact scenario that would play out over the next four years.
"Let’s be honest, if RGIII’s not on the field taking snaps for the Washington Redskins, something is seriously wrong," said NFL Network's Rich Eisen moments after the Cousins selection. "Either with him physically, or something has happened with his development to the point that it is such a Code Red situation that they have to go in a different direction. And is that person Kirk Cousins?”
And here are the Redskins in 2016, essentially saying that the answer to Eisen's question is yes — for now, anyway. After all, something did go wrong with Griffin physically. Something did go awry with his development. And following three-plus topsy-turvy seasons, Washington's brass would eventually admit that things weren't working out with its expensive Plan A, and it's Cousins who could be The Guy moving forward.
All of which is to say that Monday's news of Griffin's release was anything but surprising. It was the only logical conclusion after head coach Jay Gruden declared "it's Kirk's team" last August. But RGIII's departure, while expected, does mean the Redskins can officially turn the page on what was undoubtedly the most compelling, divisive and exhausting quarterback saga in recent franchise history — one in which an epilogue still depends on how the two passers fare the rest of their respective careers.
After all that's happened, is it even possible to boil down the Griffin/Cousins drama to one signature moment? Probably not. There have been so many dizzying chapters to this story — Griffin's electric rookie season that infamously ended with injury, "All In For Week 1", the seemingly weekly anonymous leaks to the press, "You Like That", among other things — that it'd be hard to pick which one crystallized this situation best.
But however this tale will be recounted in the coming years, it will always start with Griffin, whose arrival was met with unbridled euphoria in D.C. With his skills, charm and flare, he seemed poised to become the biggest sports figure the city had ever seen. For a franchise that had spent the better part of the 21st century chasing, promoting and enabling big-name stars, the Redskins appeared to have finally found their supernova phenom that would catapult them back to prominence after a generation of irrelevance.
And then there was Cousins, whose presence on the roster created one of the more unique quarterback dynamics across the modern NFL landscape. This wasn't a rookie backing up a veteran starter a la Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre in Green Bay. Heck, it wasn't even Colin Kaepernick and Alex Smith in San Francisco. This was a case of two men with accomplished college careers who entered the league together and likely viewed each other as equals. Cousins believed he was a starter, and yet was stuck behind a fellow rookie who was handed that title from Day One. It was hardly the first time two passers were drafted by an NFL team in the same year, but the Redskins' 2012 draft class marked the first time a team had used two of its first four picks on quarterbacks since the Cowboys did it in 1989 with Troy Aikman and Steve Walsh.
For these two, the next four years would be a battle (whether intentional or not) to win over the hearts and minds of different segments of the organization and fanbase. It was clear that Griffin had the affection of owner Daniel Snyder and team president Bruce Allen — they did fire Shanahan and hired Gruden to ostensibly help resuscitate RG3's career — along with the Redskins faithful who believed the Baylor product could replicate his stellar first season. But he would never recapture that magic, instead replacing it more injuries, poor play and poorly-worded quotes that would make him a target for critics. Soon enough, support for Cousins grew.
Of all the known and yet-to-be-revealed drama, the watershed moment came in November 2014 when Gruden publicly critiqued Griffin after a bad outing vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The coach was already known for his candor, but he would later admit that he took it a step too far by breaking down his quarterback's inadequacies in such granular detail. That episode more than any drew the line in the sand; Gruden may not have been pro-Cousins that second, but he showed the world that he was decidedly anti-Griffin.
The organization's fissure on the issue mirrored the one among fans and media, who had passionate reactions to Griffin being publicly lambasted. Some espoused that there was a racial component to the criticism, stating that Griffin's fall from grace mirrored that of previous star black quarterbacks who weren't given the opportunity or support to work through their struggles. National television personalities would later question if the D.C. media was covering Griffin's shortcomings differently than Cousins'.
At that point, it was clear the two camps were formed, and each were dug in on its respective positions. While some allowed their minds to be changed depending on how Cousins performed, a loud section of the Redskins Twitterverse saw the team's success as secondary to being right about who's the more capable NFL quarterback.
So by the time Gruden named his starter prior to 2015, a tiresome subtext had already been created. From that point forward, each Cousins pass was viewed as some sort of referendum on Gruden's decision to bench Griffin. It was as if each side lay waiting to pounce on the other depending on the result of every throw, eager to troll the opposition to prove a point. There was little room for nuance, little room for gray area: If the Redskins won, it was because Cousins proved he was a capable starter and one worthy of a long term contract. But if they lost, it was because he showed once and for all that he's at best a backup.
Cousins would eventually win over most of the fanbase after helping to guide the Redskins to a division crown. He set single-season franchise records for passing yards and total touchdowns. But impressive numbers aside, there are those who still harbor resentment over how he was given the opportunity to start in the first place, and remain skeptical that he'll ever be the answer.
Unlike Cousins, Griffin no longer has time to change how he's viewed in Washington. His downfall after the 2012 season will likely be remembered as an abject failure, as it probably should.
But the ironic twist to this story is that a team that wasted two first round choices and a second rounder to acquire its failed savior still has a chance to be redeemed by a player selected 100 picks later. That'd be a hell of a way to end a two-decade long search for a franchise quarterback.
Dan is a freelance writer and contributor to CSNmidatlantic.com. Follow Dan on Twitter via https://twitter.com/dshif
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