In 2007, ESPN published a book by writer William C. Rhoden called Third and a Mile, a definitive oral history of “the trials and triumphs of the black quarterback” in the NFL. In the book, Rhoden traces the history of black quarterbacks from Fritz Pollard to Vince Young, and he writes about Young as a transformational figure:
When we first started floating ideas for the title for this book, Warren Moon remarked, “Third and a Mile? That’s a hard one to make.”
Incredibly, each successive generation of field generals has convered it: Wilmeth Sidat-Singh, Willie Thrower, George Taliaferro, Sandy Stephens, Marlin Briscoe, James Harris, Doug Williams, Warren Moon, Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper, Michael Vick, and now Vince Young.
If you read the book in, say, 2012, Rhoden’s heralding of Vince Young as the next link in a chain of successful black quarterbacks would have seemed sadly misguided; by then, Young was a footnote and a cautionary tale. But you could easily have imagined Rhoden adding to the list former Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, who now plays for the Washington Redskins (the team traded a king’s ransom to the St. Louis Rams for the right to draft him).
If you read the book today, though, there’s a good chance that neither Young nor Griffin would make their way onto a list of success stories. In fact, Young’s and Griffin’s names seem to be increasingly tied together on a different list. That of players who—for whatever reason—were rookie phenoms (both players won Rookie of the Year honors their first year in the league) who lost the support of their coaches shortly thereafter, and found themselves run out of town.
That’s something that “The Sports Junkies,” a group of radio commentators at the NFL’s broadcast partner CBS, suggested last week:
Monday morning, The Junkies drew a new comparison with regard to RGIII’s development — or lack thereof — as a quarterback.
“I’m beginning to have a Vince Young vibe with RGIII, meaning I can’t see him in the league at age 30,” said one host, John-Paul Flaim. “The league is gonna make a determination on RGIII — not just the Redskins — the league is gonna make a determination very soon that he’s not a good quarterback when it comes to throwing the ball downfield, and that 2012 was a mirage.”
“I think [Jay] Gruden wants him to have all of the flaws there on tape so that during the offseason, he’s going to walk in to the brain trust and say, ‘This is not the leader of the football team that I’m going to coach,’” John Auville intimated. “‘This is not the guy who’s going to lead us to the promised land.’”
Nothing that happened yesterday in Washington’s game at San Francisco is likely to change any of those opinions. If anything, it probably reinforced them: Griffin was sacked five times, and passed for only 106 yards in the game. He completed an uninspired 11 of 19 passes, and rushed for only 11 yards on four attempts. He fumbled once, and threw no touchdowns (or interceptions). In the week leading up to the game, the extent to which Griffin did not possess the full faith of Washington head coach Jay Gruden was very clear: Gruden described his quarterback as “coddled” and questioned his “mental state of mind.” Reports on Sunday claimed that Gruden had the authority from Washington’s dysfunctional ownership to bench Griffin if he played poorly during the game. After the game, when Gruden was asked if the quarterback would start next week’s game, he stopped short of committing, saying instead that he had “every intent” to play him, an answer that is a lot more syllables than “yes.”
Young’s fans might remember that when he played for the Tennessee Titans, Jeff Fisher, their head coach, once refused to commit to him and also raised questions concerning his “mental state of mind”:
Fisher called Nashville police and told them he was worried about his star quarterback, reporting that Young had mentioned suicide to the team’s therapist; she believed he had a gun. Young was later located at a friend’s house, watching Monday Night Football and eating chicken wings. Young then drove to Titans headquarters, where he was met by crisis negotiators and members of a SWAT team. An unloaded gun, legal in Tennessee, was found in his glove box.
Vince Young has always been an easy point of comparison for Griffin, even when the younger player was ascending. In 2012, Bleacher Report asked if Griffin would “become the next Vince Young” before Griffin ever took a regular season snap with the Redskins. Comments on sites like ProFootballTalk rushed to compare the two the moment Griffin started to struggle. They both were superstars at Texas colleges. They both won rookie of the year honors. By many of the metrics used to assess quarterbacks, they’ve both been very successful. They’ve both faced the ire of their teams’ fanbases and struggled with their coaches. And, of course, they’re both black quarterbacks, a group that’s been so historically marginalized that an entire book was dedicated to chronicling their challenges.
Young may or may not have been a viable NFL quarterback, but his win percentage suggested that he was: His career record, before he retired to take a job at UT over the summer, was a tidy 30-17. Those who were eager to dismiss Young insisted that those numbers were misleading, and that win percentage wasn’t an accurate metric to measure a quarterback’s performance.
Griffin, meanwhile, has a career record thus far of 13-21. But by other ways to measure quarterback performance, he’s been outstanding. He’s got a career passer rating of 90.8—higher than MVP candidate and 2012 number-one overall draft pick, Andrew Luck. He also has a deeper per-attempt average than Luck’s. Those who argue against Griffin, meanwhile, claim that passer rating means nothing if you’re not winning games.
Maybe winning does matter more than stats. Or maybe winning doesn’t tell us whether a player’s great unless you factor in his individual performance. One of those can be true, but probably not both of them. If Vince Young was a let-down despite his win percentage, then it’s hardly fair to use that as a standard by which to judge Griffin.
Sports commentators are loathe to discuss race, but it’s hard to ignore the language that’s used to explain tough transitions that players like Vince Young, Donovan McNabb, and even Robert Griffin III go through. A black quarterback who finds himself going from “star player” to “never really that good” had the right “physical tools” but lacked “preparation”; they were “athletes,” but struggled with leadership; their coaches questioned their mental toughness.That’s a playbook that dates back generations, as Rhoden’s book makes clear, and it’s why the questions surrounding Griffin now aren’t exactly a surprise.
And it’s different than the language used to describe the struggles of some other quarterbacks who played their college ball in Texas. Former TCU star Andy Dalton has a career passer rating significantly worse than Griffin’s, and a win percentage worse than Vince Young’s. Former A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill is in the same boat, with a career 21-24 win/loss record, and a career passer rating of 82.9. When Dalton had an historically bad night a few weeks ago against the Cleveland Browns, though, the language used to talk about his performance never sounded like the language used to discuss Griffin. When Tannehill struggles with sacks, his coaches praise his “mental toughness.”
Tannehill and Dalton are fine young quarterbacks, capable of winning games and of blowing them. The position is perhaps the most difficult one to learn in sports, and young players often take time to develop. For Tannehill and Dalton, they both succeed and struggle as they grow into the players they’ll be as they begin to approach their thirties. (Dalton is 27 years old and Tannehill is 26; Griffin is 24.) Tannehill may end up leading the Dolphins to a playoff berth for the first time this year, a feat that Griffin accomplished his rookie season in Washington. Quarterbacks like Ryan Tannehill and Andy Dalton, in other words, are given the opportunity to develop, with the support of their coaches, and deservedly so. But the question is: Why has a young player with Robert Griffin III’s talent receiving the same treatment that black quarterbacks from Marlin Briscoe to Vince Young received, rather than the opportunities to mature that Tannehill and Dalton have?
For the moment, Griffin’s future remains unwritten. Most likely, he’ll start for Washington against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, albeit behind a patchwork offensive line that was destroyed by the 49ers pass rush yesterday. He won’t do so with the full faith of his head coach, because that already appears to be lost—but excellence is always a possibility, even without the advantages of a healthy offensive line or the support of a coach. And it makes sense why Jay Gruden would keep Griffin on the field. Anyone who watched the 49ers tear through the Washington line in pursuit of the quarterback would have a hard time arguing that backup Colt McCoy would have avoided those sacks, which means that if he struggles, Griffin remains a convenient scapegoat for a coach whose job could be in jeopardy after just one season, while if he succeeds, Gruden looks like a genius.
Whatever happens, if 24-year-old Robert Griffin III finds himself unemployable in the NFL a few years after winning a rookie of the year award and leading his team to the playoffs—or, if after injuries and coaching struggles force him back to Waco to open a steakhouse near the new Baylor stadium—it’ll be a real disappointment for the NFL. But, as Vince Young has taught us, not necessarily a surprise.
(AP Photo/Ric Tapia)