When the NFL Draft begins tonight, the team that calls the nation’s capital home won’t have a first-round draft pick. That’s because Washington traded four picks, including this year’s first-rounder, to the St. Louis Rams in 2012, a move that helped it land Robert Griffin III – the type of franchise quarterback the team has long wanted.
There’s no secret why the organization wanted RGIII. After two years of inconsistent play at the quarterback position, Washington, under then-head coach Mike Shanahan, saw plenty to love in Baylor’s Heisman Trophy winner. He not only could make amazing plays with his feet, but also, in an equally impressive manner, could make every throw expected of a top-tier NFL signal caller with a simple flick of the wrist.
And as a rookie, RGIII made the trade look like a good one. He set a league record for having the best quarterback rating by a rookie, ever. He led Washington to their first NFC East title in 13 years, throwing for 3,200 yards and 20 touchdowns along the way.
Things have changed since then. RGIII hurt his knee in the 2013 playoffs, and as Washington slumped to a losing season last year, his fellow second-year starters excelled. Russell Wilson took the Seahawks to a Super Bowl title, Colin Kaepernick led the 49ers back to the NFC title game, and Andrew Luck and the Colts won a playoff game.
Combine that with RGIII’s struggles – whether because of the knee injury or because teams adjusted to his read-option attack – and the fact that the team gave St. Louis four draft picks to get him has caused some fretting among the team’s fans and the national media. The price Washington paid was high, even if history suggests that sometimes high prices for quarterbacks are justified: a majority of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks were first-round draft picks, and 24 of the last 30 Super Bowl winners either drafted their quarterback or acquired him in a draft-related trade. It seems, then, that the best chance your team has to win the Super Bowl is to draft a franchise quarterback, and, even with the success of guys like Brees and Brady, the best place to get them is in the first round.
But Washington already paid the price, so the question now is whether RGIII will justify it.
I still think so, and here’s why.
The biggest improvements in a player’s game typically comes from their first season to their second. That first full off-season of work is invaluable for all players, and that’s especially true for quarterbacks, if only because they’re facing NFL defenses that are more elaborate than those they saw in college. Every April, teams begin their rigorous programs of weight lifting and conditioning, followed by meetings and practices three or four times a week. For second-year players, this is the first time they focus solely on football in camp, because their rookie year is spent acclimating to everything from the NFL atmosphere to a new city to a new playbook. The second year is where they really focus and improve.
That improvement shows when looking at some of the game’s biggest names: Tom Brady went from a back-up to a capable starter in his second season in the league, then, in his second season as a starter, threw for 1,000 more yards and 10 more touchdowns than he had a year before. Peyton Manning threw 28 interceptions as a rookie. He cut that to 15 in his second, and his QB rating jumped nearly 20 points. Major advances.
You can see it in the crop of young quarterbacks too. Luck lost his top receiver in Week Seven and still threw for more than 3,800 yards. That was fewer than he passed for as a rookie, but his completion percentage went up and his number of interceptions dropped. Kaepnerick earned the starting role midway through his second year and took San Francisco to the Super Bowl. His second season as a starter, he threw for more than 3,000 yards and set the single-game record for rushing yards by a quarterback. Russell Wilson improved on a solid rookie year by taking his team to a Super Bowl victory in his second.
As these young quarterbacks were improving as passers and game managers during their first full off-seasons in the league, Griffin had a different focus: rehabilitating his injured knee.
When I signed with Washington last June during a mini-camp tryout, I saw firsthand how much progress RGIII had made from then to the time training camp started in July. Although not yet participating in team drills, he looked comfortable and sharp in seven-on-seven and one-on-one drills. He didn’t play in the preseason games by design and it wasn’t until a few weeks into camp that he was able to participate in full team drills. Griffin was like a fighter pilot in training, stuck in simulation mode. I saw him working hard, doing everything humanly possible to prepare himself to be ready for the start of the 2013 season. But there’s only so much one can do as a player to become mentally and physically comfortable with defenders flying around you – especially with a surgically repaired knee.
At the same time, he was preparing differently, for defenses that would adjust to his success in the read-option, to new coverages a young quarterback like him is still getting used to seeing regularly. And with less reliance on the spread attack, he had to improve on making more accurate throws to his receivers.
That would have been difficult task even if he had missed no time due to the knee injury. He essentially had to crunch all five months of off season work, including mini-camp and training camp, into a short couple of weeks before opening the season at home against the Eagles on Monday Night Football. Griffin missed an important period of time, and that no doubt impeded his development as a quarterback, as it would with any player. Since then, he has experienced first hand how quickly the winds can shift from praise to condemnation.
Hiring a new staff in Washington may have been the second best thing for RGIII moving forward, because it will bring a renewed energy to the locker room and a clean slate after a forgettable 2013 season. The best thing for Washington’s organization, their fan base, and most importantly, Robert Griffin III, is that unlike last year at this time, Griffin is completely healthy and is participating in the team’s offseason program, allowing him the necessary maturation process for the toughest position on the field, while giving him the golden opportunity to silence his critics this fall.
We won’t know whether that trade was worth it for a long time. But I believe RGIII will make the most of a fresh start and prove Washington made a great decision by drafting him even at such an expensive price. Washington may be a few players away from winning a championship this season, but its most important piece will be healthy, eager, and motivated more than ever to have a successful 2014 season.
Donte’ Stallworth played 10 seasons in the NFL for New Orleans, Philadelphia, New England, Cleveland, Baltimore, and Washington. He is currently enrolled in the NFL's Business Management and Entrepreneurial program focusing on journalism & communications.