The careers of Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel were never inherently linked. They never overlapped in the NCAA; RG3 finished his career at Baylor and entered the 2012 NFL draft, the same year that Manziel—playing at A&M—became the first freshman to ever win the Heisman Trophy (an honor that Griffin earned the previous year). Griffin became one of the most coveted quarterbacks to enter the league, prompting Washington to trade multiple first-round picks to draft him at number two overall. Manziel slid in the NFL draft two years later, eventually landing in Cleveland with the twenty-second pick. In his first season, Griffin won Rookie of the Year honors and led a previously hapless Washington team to the playoffs. Manziel, in his first season, completed eighteen passes, never threw a touchdown, and was declared a “100 percent joke” by his teammate.
And yet, they both ended up in the same place in 2017: the quarterback discard pile. After suffering a torn ACL in 2012, Griffin’s momentum faltered, and he never quite got it back. Meanwhile, Manziel skipped meetings, played poorly, and—in general—seemed to lack interest in football.
Manziel sat out the 2016 and 2017 seasons, and began a media-focused comeback tour shortly after the Super Bowl in February. His desire to get back into football wasn’t enough to land him on an NFL roster, and in May, he gave up on the idea and took a contract offer in the Canadian Football League with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Manziel, who ended up on a team with a starter who quickly became entrenched, was traded in late July to the Montreal Alouettes.
And last week, both quarterbacks finally saw the field for the first time in years. On Thursday night, Griffin started for the Ravens at the NFL’s Hall of Fame game, a glorified scrimmage that kicks off the preseason, against the Chicago Bears. The following night, Manziel got his first start for the Alouettes.
The two performances seemed, at a glance, to be a study in contrasts. Griffin, the hardworking quarterback whose career was derailed by injuries—and, what some argue, a pattern of racially-influenced quarterback decisions—shined in the first half of the game. (He was pulled for the second half to give coaches a chance to evaluate rookie first-rounder Lamar Jackson.) Manziel, who never seemed to work that hard during his career, completed just 55 percent of his passes and tossed four interceptions before being benched in the 50-11 loss.
Even though he hasn’t been in the burgundy & gold for almost 3 years, it brings a smile to my face seeing RG3 doing well. pic.twitter.com/uS0tH6NDKa
— Shaun Salehi (@DoubleS30) August 3, 2018
Still, slotting them into a narrative based on their past performances would be an oversimplification. Griffin, who’s been a Raven for four months, had a fair amount of time to learn the playbook, develop some amount of timing with his receivers, and get comfortable in the team’s offense. Manziel joined the Alouettes ten days before making his start. Football isn’t a game for plug-and-play athletes, and that’s especially true at quarterback, where leading the offense requires a command of its elements and a familiarity with the players. (It also doesn’t help that the Alouettes were floundering before Manziel ever showed up, which is why they traded for him in the first place.)
At the same time, though, Griffin put himself in a position to succeed in ways that Manziel did not. When RG3 signed his deal with the Ravens in April, it wasn’t the first time that he’d been offered the chance to play in Baltimore. The team presented him with a contract in August 2017—a deal that would have seen him suit up to play with roughly as much prep time as Manziel had on Friday night. He declined, opting to sit out the 2017 season and put himself in a better situation this year. Manziel waited until he was confident the NFL wasn’t going to be calling to go to Canada.
On the field, Griffin looked good. He scrambled well, showing off a knee that was surgically-repaired five years ago and which appeared to be as fresh as ever. More impressive, though, was his pinpoint accuracy and quick release, as he threaded the ball to receivers in tight space during an impressive touchdown drive. (He also threw one interception on his first drive, after receiver Breshad Perriman bungled a pass into the hands of a Bears defender.) The quality of the defense Griffin faced was not exactly NFL Sunday caliber—the Chicago’s consisted of a few starters and a lot of backups, playing for a team whose defense hasn’t exactly been fearsome in recent years. But every player on the field in the Hall of Fame game had a job that the players in the CFL dream of getting.
Manziel’s performance, meanwhile, fit easily into what we think of when we think of his struggles as a quarterback. We’ve known for some time that he plays more instinctively than a student of the game like Griffin. When he’s able to succeed on the field with that style of play, it’s thrilling—but when he plays poorly, it feels predictable.
Rushing to judgment based on those debuts, however, may not be fair to Manziel or to Griffin. Manziel will have plenty of time in Montreal to put together a body of work. The league would very much like to see him develop into someone they can sell advertising and marketing around, and the Alouettes are hopeless enough that there’s no reason not to just keep letting Johnny play. If he hasn’t put together better performances by week eighteen of the interminable CFL season, then we’ll know for sure that there’s no #ComebackSZN on the horizon for Manziel.
For Griffin, reading too much into a good preseason performance could well lead to disappointment. The Ravens seem like a good fit for him—Joe Flacco is an incumbent starter who has struggled in recent years, and rookie Lamar Jackson may not be ready to start (in his first NFL action in the second half on Thursday, he completed just four of ten passes). If Griffin’s impressive performance on Thursday is the first of a string of him demonstrating that he’s still got what he had in 2012, then there’ll probably be a job for him in the NFL somewhere—but given that many teams don’t keep three quarterbacks on the roster in the season, he could play well in Baltimore and still not find himself making the 53-man team when the season starts.
Whatever happens, though, watching Griffin play football again—and watching as Manziel gets the chance to sink or swim with his new, supposedly mature outlook on life—is an exciting opportunity. And it’s something that Griffin seems to appreciate.