On Wednesday, Robert Griffin III made his return to the NFL. For Texans, who watched as Griffin made a name for himself at Baylor, the former first-round draft pick’s agreement to a one-year contract with the Baltimore Ravens is a tantalizing prospect. Griffin’s career played out like an Aristotelian tragedy, with an awe-inspiring rise followed by a precipitous fall. Few quarterbacks were ever more fun to watch. Three games into his Heisman Trophy–winning final year at Baylor, the quarterback had thrown more touchdowns than incompletions. In the 2012 NFL draft he was considered a can’t-miss quarterback prospect. Washington traded up to the number two overall pick to grab him, offering the then–St. Louis Rams three number one picks and a number two choice, a bounty nearly without precedent for a team looking to move up only four spots in the draft.
When he arrived in Washington, Griffin delivered on the promise he showed in his college years. A team that had been a dismal 5-11 last place outfit in 2011 was suddenly atop their division, cruising to the playoffs. More RG3 jerseys were sold in 2012 than any player in a single year in NFL history. Griffin won Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, and for a few months, it appeared as though the bevy of picks Washington traded away were a downright bargain.
Then came the tragic twist: In the wild card round of the 2012 playoffs against Seattle, Griffin led the team on two consecutive touchdown drives to start the game. On the third drive, though, he seriously injured his knee. Head coach Mike Shanahan declined to take the obviously hobbled Griffin out of the game until the fourth quarter, and Washington lost. Griffin, after a hurried rehabilitation, returned eight months later for the 2013 season opener, but he was never the same. By December, he was benched in favor of Kirk Cousins. By 2014, Griffin slid further down the depth chart—one-time Longhorn and career NFL backup Colt McCoy started over him in several games that season—and by the next year, the team made the bizarre decision to keep him off the field as a quarterback, instead using him instead as a safety on the scout team.
There might have been a second act to Griffin’s career, but alas, he went to Cleveland as the twenty-fifth starting quarterback the team had trotted out since 1999. Griffin started the season opener for the Browns, injured his shoulder, and didn’t return until the final weeks of the season, after the team had cycled through two additional starters.
He was cut after the 2016 season and failed to make any roster the following year. It seemed that Griffin’s career had perished—until Wednesday.
This wasn’t the first time that Griffin had been offered a contract with the Baltimore Ravens. Late in the 2017 offseason, the team approached him to join the roster just before its first preseason game. Griffin told ESPN that, though he wanted to play, he didn’t feel like the opportunity would allow him to succeed. “Selfishly I could have taken that . . . but I knew I wouldn’t have been ready with that offense, with those guys, to put my best foot forward,” he told the network in December.
Signing with the Ravens in early April, though—with the team’s offseason workouts, organized team activities, and training camp still ahead of him—is a different story. If there’s a triumphant third act in Griffin’s career to come, it’s likely to occur in a place like Baltimore. Griffin declined a contract with the Cardinals last year because the team had an entrenched and two backups with starting experience; he understood that there simply aren’t enough practice snaps to go around for four quarterbacks. On most teams, he would find himself competing for a number two or three spot on the depth chart. But though the Ravens have an established starter in Joe Flacco, his poor performance in recent years means that he’s likely to start the 2018 season on a short leash. The only other quarterback on the roster at the moment is second-year practice squad player Josh Woodruff. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti told reporters in February that the team was unlikely to pursue a top passer in the draft, saying that they had “bigger fish to fry.” Which means that, if Flacco struggles—and there’s reason to believe he might—the quarterback who’d replace him could well be Griffin. And if the 28-year-old plays well in relief, he’d still have a fair amount of football left in him.
All of that is encouraging for fans of Griffin’s who felt he got a raw deal in Washington. (Shanahan, speaking to ESPN’s The Undefeated in 2016, admitted that he never wanted the team to trade up to draft Griffin.) It’s a nice thought for fans who recognize that no quarterback has really succeeded with the Browns since the team rejoined the NFL in 1999. But it also leaves one big question on the table: Can Griffin still play? His contract offers over the past few years suggest that people who know talent best—the general managers—believe his potential is still there. (Ask Tim Tebow or Johnny Manziel what it’s like when the league decides it’s finished with you.) Griffin entered the NFL during the height of the read-option craze, of around 2011 through 2014, which required speedy, mobile quarterbacks—but that style of play has cooled in the meantime. That’s probably a good thing for him. Regardless of the condition of his knee, Griffin never seemed comfortable being treated solely as a read-option player, and the Ravens offense takes advantage of Flacco’s functional mobility without building its entire game plan around it—something that would suit Griffin nicely if he finds himself under center during the regular season.
Still, signing a deal as a backup in April doesn’t mean that Griffin is truly back, or that he’s going to end up on our televisions on Sundays in the fall. Flacco could have a comeback season, or the coaching staff could decide to ride-or-die with the 2013 Super Bowl MVP. Bisciotti’s declaration that the team wasn’t interested in drafting a quarterback could have been misdirection, and Griffin could find himself behind a rookie like Baker Mayfield or Lamar Jackson. Griffin’s struggles in Washington could have been fairly assessed by the team, and maybe he just doesn’t have it anymore. Any Texan who watched Vince Young bounce around from team to team after his career with the Titans ended is familiar with the experience of watching a once-great player fail to catch on a second chance in the NFL.
But spring in the NFL is a time of hope and renewal, and those of us who enjoyed Griffin’s early career successes have nothing to lose in hoping that, despite the tragic downfall he experienced in Washington, we’re on the verge of witnessing the next chapter in one of the game’s great comeback stories. At the very least, that’d be fun to watch.