The Game Ain’t Based On Sympathy

2012 NFL Draft Night

What if I told you my favorite NFL game of all time consisted of the winning quarterback not have more than 100 yards passing nor more than 10 completed passes? For a kid that grew up wanting to be the black Steve Young, who idolized Dan Marino, Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham, my favorite game should probably have more fireworks. It didn’t. But the only thing that matters is the W. This game, on December 30, 2012, against the Dallas Cowboys in Landover, Md, the Washington Redsk*ns were champions, led by rookie phenom quarterback Robert Griffin III. While a passing game of 9 of 18 with 100 passing yards and no passing touchdowns is something that would indicate a blowout loss, quite the opposite happened. The running tandem of then-rookies RGIII and running back Alfred Morris combined for 263 rushing yards (63 and 200 yards, respectively) and four touchdowns. On that chilly night in suburban Maryland, featured in prime time for the last game of the 2012 regular season, the hometown team beat their biggest rivals to win the NFC East division title and gain the last playoff spot while, simultaneously, knocking said rivals out of their playoff hopes. A thing of beauty is a joy forever.

The game culminated a season of hope, turmoil and triumph. After an exciting Week 1 win to open the 2012 season against the New Orleans Saints, a game where RGIII threw for 320 yards, two touchdowns and committed no turnovers, the team lost four of their next six games. While clinging to a glimmer of a chance of a successful season, the Skins won seven games in a row to close out the season (the last time the team won seven consecutive games was in 1996 and they haven’t done it since). Beating Dallas in DC to win the NFC East cemented the best Redsk*ns’ season since their 1991-1992 Super Bowl campaign.

A snapshot of the most exciting time in the Dan Snyder Era. RGIII celebrates with the crowd after torching the Minnesota Vikings on a 76-yard touchdown run.

Those seven wins built the legend of RGIII, gave a spark of life to over-the-hill head coach Mike Shanahan and lent credibility to nepotistic up-and-coming offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Griffin finished the season with 3200 passing years, 815 rushing yards (most by a non-running back in 2012 and was then 5th all time in rushing yards gained by a quarterback in a single season) and 27 total touchdowns. His highlight reel, which includes the 76-yard game winning touchdown run against the Vikings in Week 6, gave glimpse of a career that was destined to set the NFL on fire.

While Alfred Morris’ rookie season may be all but forgotten for football fans outside of the DC Beltway, his contribution to the team’s success was undeniable. In 2012, the sixth-round pick finished second in the league in rushing yards (1613 yards, only behind future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson who finished with 2097, which… gawddamn, that’s incredible), second in the league in rushing touchdowns (13, only behind Hall of Very Good running back Arian Foster who finished with 15) and broke the Redsk*ns’ record of rushing yards in a single season by almost 100 yards (sorry Clinton Portis) which stands to this day. After the win, for the lot and the organization as a whole, nothing was the same.

Before the start of the 2012 NFL campaign, the Indianapolis Colts were reeling from the absence of future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning after he missed the entire 2011 season due to neck surgery. Holding the 1st pick in the 2012 Draft, the biggest question was “Luck or Griffin?” Both Andrew Luck and RGIII set the college world on fire, but Luck was always the clear favorite. At Standford, Andrew shattered most of the meaningful school passing records, including eclipsing John Elway for total touchdowns passes in a career (82), most passing touchdowns in a season (37, which was his own record to break at 32), and most total offensive yards (10,387). The Standford standout finished 2nd in Heisman voting to Griffin.

Before the Draft, there were rumors that the Skins wanted to trade up to the #1 slot to potentially grab Luck. The Colts, though, held firm and drafted the quarterback who should’ve played at WVU under his dad Oliver Luck. They placed their faith in the “aww-shucks,” “gee willikers,” “I’m just happy to be here” QB from California and the consensus then was it was the right choice. While Luck’s personality would never have a hint of controversy (or just plain personality, for that matter), he had all the tools to lead a franchise into the future.

New to the league, media scrutiny was different for both quarterbacks, which is par for the course for starting black and white NFL quarterbacks. (Do you think Andrew had to endure anything as notoriously absurd and ludicrous as the “Cornball Brother” spectacle?) Bob struggled with the DC and national press for countless reasons, while Luck’s only test was always playing in the shadow of Manning. Every broadcast game brought up some amalgamation of Manning vs Luck, even years after his rookie season when the former Papa John’s shill was long gone. But Luck always managed to handle the burden in stride and, in fact, with honor. He showed up, played football and left. And though I prefer if athletes had more personality than drying paint, there is something admirable about someone who’s always the professional. Unwavering to the faux-drama and hype that most professional sports tend to drum up and outwardly showed that he cared about his teammates and the game.

Luck’s rookie season success mirrored RGIII’s: both led hapless franchises to the playoffs (yes, the Colts were hapless; they only won two games the season before drafting Luck and cut the fourth greatest quarterback ever) and flashed greatness throughout 2012. Andrew finished seventh in the league in passing yards (4347, which broke the rookie record for most yards in a season, surpassing Cam Newton) and set the rookie record for most passing yards in a game (433, which was, also, held by Newton). Reminiscent of the the Heisman voting, Luck finished second to Bob the Third in Rookie of the Year voting.

Going back to 2012 Skins, let’s review some of the team stats: they finished 1st in rushing yards, 2nd in rushing touchdowns, 2nd in yards per play attempt, lowest total turnovers (14), 3rd in QB rating, 4th in points scored and their had highest point differential since 2005 (+48). The defense, sadly, was a gash, giving up the third most passing yards and passing touchdowns in the NFL. While most of the damage occurred during the beginning of the season (the defense allowed at least 300 passing yards each of the team’s first seven games), the offense led by Griffin and Morris were the team’s saving grace.

More than the stats, the Skins and the Colts had done something every team wishes to do on Draft Night: get talent that immediately shines and offers promise and hope for the future. The ability to create on the fly, skirt defenses with speedy scrambles, and displaying tangible leadership were present in Luck and Bob. They were drafted to become the face of their respective franchises and, dammit, it actually happened. Washington drafted a Heisman winning quarterback who went on to win Rookie of the Year; what could go wrong?

Everything. Once 2012 was over, Andrew and Robert’s paths diverged drastically but, somehow, still ended up at the same destination.

Throughout the 2012 season, Griffin continually battled health issues, primarily knee injuries and concussions. For any athlete who’s skill set is primarily based on their athleticism, a bum knee and bum ankles are never a good sign. In the 2012 Wild Card game against the Seattle Seahawks, Griffin re-injured an already shaky right knee. It was rumored that RGIII wasn’t medically cleared to play but he did anyway. During play, with the Skins up 14-0, Griffin suffered what was a clearly visible knee injury. Instead of pulling Griffin for the rest of the game and trusting his team to hold onto the lead, Coach Shanahan continued to play Robert. With six minutes left to go in the game, RGIII’s right knee turned his right leg to the letter “J” and the Skin’s miracle season was over. In the off-season, he had surgery to repair his LCL and ACL.

The rest of RGIII’s time in DC was just as perplexing and painful to watch as their playoff loss. The next season, fueled by a ridiculously shortsighted “All In For Week 1” campaign by Adidas, Griffin rushed back from his knee injury only to be as unproductive and lifeless just as his knee had been in the playoffs. The production dropped, the injuries mounted, the patience from coaches and fans wore thin and the wunderkind was left in the cold. By the 2015 season, it was abundantly clear that the new coaching staff (the Shanahan’s were gone; insert the incredibly vanilla Jay Gruden) was done with Griffin when they embarrassingly relegated him to scout team defensive safety, placed him third on the QB depth chart and didn’t give him a single snap in 2015. On March 7, 2016, the Skins cut their 1st round pick. There was little fanfare and no real remembrance of the 2012 miracle season, just a box to pack his shit. The jig and Bob the Third were up.

Luck’s career in Indiana, however, flourished, culminating into two consecutive AFC South titles in 2013 and 2014 for the revived Colts. His game continued to mature in impressive ways. In the 2013-2014 Wild Card game, down 28 points to the Kansas City Chiefs, Luck’s 443 passing yards and four touchdowns led the Colts to the second large comeback in NFL playoff history, winning 45-44. In 2014, the full potential of Andrew Luck was manifested: he finished the season 1st in passing touchdowns (40), 2nd in passing yards (4761) and 5th in yards per pass completion. In the playoffs, Luck exercised the Peyton Manning demons by beating the Chicken Parm Don to advance to the AFC Championship game. Even though they fell to the eventual Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots, Luck reaffirmed why he was 2012’s #1 overall pick. Then, 2015 hit like Mike Tyson in his prime and the injuries started to pile.

In 2015, Andrew missed playing in Weeks 4 and 5 due to a shoulder injury. Miraculously, it was the first time in Luck’s pro career that he missed playing full games. After Week 9, and another victory over Manning and the Denver Broncos, Luck missed the remainder of the season due to a lacerated kidney and a partially torn abdominal muscle. After the 2016 season, Luck had surgery to repair the lingering 2015 shoulder injury. At the start of the 2017 season, news was Luck may miss a couple of games. After the Colts started 1-3, Luck was worked out to see if he come perform. He couldn’t. So much so that he was placed on injured reserved and didn’t take a snap the entire 2017. Chatter was so bad that reporters and fans weren’t even sure Luck could even throw a ball, let alone be a professional football quarterback.

In 2018, Luck was back. All in for Week 1. The season started shaky at 1-5 and the amount of passing attempts for Luck seem to indicate overcompensation to the nth degree: in four games, all losses, he threw a gargantuan 204 pass attempts. That’s an average of 51 gawddamn throws a game. For someone who couldn’t even throw a ball a year ago, it’s amazing his arm didn’t literally fall off. The Colts, however, were able to go 9-1 over their next ten games to make the playoffs. Andrew finished the season 2nd in passing touchdowns (39, only behind sophomore phenom Patrick Mahomes’s 50), 5th in passing yards (4593) and won Comeback Player of the Year.

More than the stats, the Colts had their QB back.

Bitch, you thought!

During the 2019 training camps, Andrew was a no-show. For three weeks of OTA’s, and a portion of training camp, Luck was dealing with a calf injury. While he and the coaches kept a calm face when discussing his return, he didn’t take a single snap in any preseason game. During preseason Week 3, in the middle of a loss to da Chicago Bears, news broke of Luck’s shocking retirement at the age of 29. Fans in the crowd at the game and across the country were dismayed and confused. It resulted in a reaction that not a single player of any team across any sport on any level would want: he was booed off the field by the Indianapolis home crowd.

During his final appearance as a member of the Indianapolis Colts, Andrew Luck is jeered and booed as he walked off the field. Colts fans deserve nothing.

Watching the crowd boo a man who sacrificed his body, youth and sanity to the football gods was disturbingly familiar. Fans are fanatics; they pledge fealty to only those who they feel can win their team games their way. Once you no longer serve their purpose or upset their fragile state of being, you are the enemy. The moment Andrew Luck chose himself over the Colts, he became the enemy. And while I’m sure the next time Luck makes an appearance in the state of Indiana there will be standing ovations abound, the raw emotion of the Indianapolis crowd, that swelled in them so much to the point that they booed their first round pick, is probably closer to the truth of how they felt about their star and the cynical part of me feels any ovation Luck receives now will be, in part, because Colts fans feel shame they showed their true hand. The game ain’t based on sympathy.

While Luck made the choice on his own to leave the game he loved, the choice was never really Griffin’s. In the same way we’ll never really know why or who put Luck up to throwing 200 times in four games coming off of shoulder recovery, we’ll never truly know the internal or external pressures RGIII faced to continually rush from injury. In the same draft they picked Robert, the Redsk*ns selected Derp Kirk Cousins, the QB who eventually landed the R’s starting job, in the 4th round. It isn’t inconceivable that Griffin felt overt and/or covert pressure from the organization to perform with Cousins on the bench leering. Why was there, seemingly, so little protection of the team’s most valuable asset to allow “All In For Week 1” to be a thing?

Whether the choice was his or not is almost moot; what is important is that Robert Griffin III gave his body and career to a team, fan base and media pool that was unyieldingly insufferable and insatiable. Years after Griffin was cut, he was continually used as an fodder to show how Cousins was always the better quarterback, even though both QB’s had similar (and very little) success. Though RGIII is still playing in the league, he’s not really playing in the league; his prime has long since passed. Currently, he’s backing up 2nd-year QB Lamar Jackson in Baltimore and will be sideline for a few weeks with a thumb injury. (ANOTHER INJURY!). The 2012 season feels like two lifetimes ago.

So, what’s to make of two QB’s whose minds are telling them “yes” when their bodies are telling them “no”? Are we left to take away how fragile the human body is in America’s favorite and most violence per capita sport? Are we to not trust coaches and organizations (and/or players) when an athlete seems to come back from injury too fast? Are athletes finally allowed to not give a fuck about what fans think about them or their career choices? Maybe the only lesson to learn is that the NFL machine churns continually without missing a beat while the athletes have no real say in their futures.

Regardless, the Colts are going to play their 16-week schedule whether Luck is on board or not. If you give them football, they will come. And fans will still give their attention and money to a football organization with a racist mascot, a moron of an owner and a dimwitted and timid head coach because why fight the inevitable? If you give them football, they will come. Hopefully, Bob knows that we still remember the lightening bolt and that his time in DC wasn’t a complete waste, and that Andrew finds peace in his decision.

Originally posted on August 30, 2019 and updated for grammatical corrections on July 12, 2020 (happy birthday, mommy). Remembering writing this piece, it was a fun challenge. I accomplished what I wanted to with it.

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