Why the Browns signed RG III, and what it means for their future

Jon Gruden: Browns, Griffin have a lot to prove (1:06)

Jon Gruden calls Robert Griffin III an "unknown" in terms of production with Cleveland and says the team should still keep their options open in terms of taking a quarterback early in the NFL Draft. (1:06)

The new marriage between Robert Griffin III and the Cleveland Browns is an arrangement that suits both parties. If people are only as faithful as their options, both RG III and Cleveland should be in love with each other. Griffin faced an uncertain future; I wrote on Monday that his market appeared to be the Browns or bust, and with little interest elsewhere around the league, Cleveland was the most inviting seat available in terms of Griffin rebuilding his career. And for the perennially rebuilding Browns, Griffin was the highest-upside option available on the market.

Let's run through the questions circulating after Griffin's signing to get a sense of how Griffin might be able to kick-start his stalled career in Ohio. First, though, let's figure out the deal from Cleveland's perspective:

Why did the Browns sign Griffin?

Before Thursday, Cleveland's depth chart at quarterback consisted of Josh McCown, Austin Davis, Connor Shaw, and Pat Devlin. You can make a case that Davis deserved more of a look, given that he was relatively competent during his time with the Rams in 2014, but he struggled last season and probably isn't in line for more time as some team's starting quarterback. McCown was a perfectly reasonable backup quarterback last year, throwing 12 touchdowns against four interceptions while posting a 53.9 Total QBR, but he is also 36 years old -- and the nominal starter for a team that is beginning yet another rebuild. Even if he's the best option for a team or two -- and you could make a case that Denver should consider looking McCown's way if the Browns cut him -- he would be a placeholder for these Browns.

It's no surprise the Browns wanted to add a quarterback, then. They've been linked to Carson Wentz and Jared Goff with the second overall pick in the draft, but more on them in a minute. If they wanted to add a professional quarterback to their roster, the Browns didn't really have a better option than Griffin. Going into the market for somebody like Ryan Fitzpatrick would have been a stopgap in the same vein as McCown. Trade targets like Colin Kaepernick and Mike Glennon have their own warts and would have cost the Browns at least one draft pick, probably a third- (Kaepernick) or fourth-round (Glennon) selection. And in the latter case, the Browns only would have had the Tampa Bay backup for one season before Glennon hit free agency.

Griffin's the best option of the bunch in a few ways. He obviously has more long-term upside than the Fitzpatricks of the world. On a two-year, $15-million deal with $6.75 million in guarantees, the Browns could pay less for two years of RG III than they would have for one season of Kaepernick, while retaining some leverage with a team-friendly $6 million base salary in the second year of the deal if Griffin does turn his career around in 2016. There's no guaranteed money for Griffin in 2017, making it easy for the Browns to move on if he disappoints.

And because Washington picked up Griffin's fifth-year option last year before subsequently releasing him this offseason, the Browns will not miss out on a compensatory pick by signing the former Heisman Trophy winner and rookie of the year. (Had Washington declined Griffin's option, as the Seahawks did with Bruce Irvin, they would have been entitled to a comp pick, probably in the fourth round.) The Browns' offseason moves suggest they're sensitive to accruing compensatory picks, and the Griffin signing leaves their five-pick haul untouched.

What went so wrong for Griffin in Washington? Is he completely washed?

How much time do you have? The short version: Griffin was transcendent during his rookie season, at the helm of a scheme that incorporated concepts from his Baylor playbook to flummox opposing defenses. Defenses grew more comfortable seeing the read-option and weren't quite as terrified of Griffin as a runner, with injuries sapping his athleticism and a new coaching staff installing a different scheme.

By the end of 2014, Griffin was a fundamentally flawed quarterback, struggling with any semblance of comfort or presence in the pocket and having that impact in every part of his game. Griffin's mechanics were out of whack, his decision-making was spotty and his confidence was shot. He was broken. That's the last RG III we saw, given that he sat behind Kirk Cousins for the entire 2015 season.

Of course, it's possible Griffin is done, that the sacrifices he made in playing through injuries during the 2012 season will prevent him from being that sort of contributor ever again. It would hardly be unprecedented, though, for a quarterback to look finished (in part because of injuries) and subsequently revitalize his career under a better coach in a new location. Kurt Warner was dumped by the Rams and Giants -- having thrown 10 touchdowns against 16 picks over a three-year stretch -- before returning to stardom in Arizona. Randall Cunningham suffered multiple injuries and was out of football before making his way back to the Pro Bowl with the Vikings. And Griffin is still only 26, far younger than those passers were before they rebuilt their careers.

The argument that Griffin was a creation of his time, that he could only have been useful in that brief moment in which the league wasn't ready for his offense? I'm skeptical. It's not as if Griffin was some anonymous player whom the NFL had foisted off as irrelevant before he emerged as an unlikely fit; he was the consensus No. 2 pick in a deep 2012 draft, a franchise quarterback the league valued as a meaningful asset in any scheme. He might be irreparably broken, in the way that quarterbacks like Tim Couch and David Carr were after years of having bad habits and nasty outcomes drilled into the ends of their drops. He might also need a fresh start and a patient coach.

Is Cleveland a good place for Griffin to succeed?

Getting past the jokes about whether the Browns are a good place for anybody to succeed, it's hard to really imagine a better landing point for Griffin in terms of the coaching staff than the head coach he's about to hook up with in Cleveland. Outside of Chip Kelly (who briefly recruited Griffin in college) or Art Briles, Hue Jackson would be in the top tier of coaches to help reconstruct RG III as a viable NFL quarterback.

Jackson hasn't received credit for it since taking over (coincidentally) for Jay Gruden, but during his time as the offensive coordinator in Cincinnati, the former Raiders head coach was one of the most creative and schematically-aggressive coaches in all of football, producing an offense that led the league in DVOA last year. My colleague Matt Bowen noted Jackson's emphasis on RPOs (run-pass options, or packaged plays), a tendency that Jackson began to show in 2014 but had to put on ice without Tyler Eifert, who missed virtually the entire season because of an elbow injury.

With Eifert back in the fold in 2015, Jackson constructed a shockingly effective attack with Andy Dalton and AJ McCarron at the helm. Eifert gave Jackson a pivot to work the offense from, a tight end who was devastating on seam routes and working after the catch on stick routes. Jackson also looked past Dalton's weaknesses to play toward the Cincinnati starter's strengths. Dalton's historically struggled against the blitz, so Jackson had him get the ball out quicker; he went from averaging 2.33 seconds per pass under Gruden to 2.23 seconds per pass under Jackson, the quickest rate in all of football.

For a guy who was really one of the first (if not the first) college quarterbacks to run the inverted veer at school, Dalton wasn't commonly thought of as a mobile quarterback. Jackson made Dalton's running a bigger part of Cincinnati's offense. Strip out the kneels that are inexplicably still counted as rushing attempts in the NFL, and Dalton averaged 2.1 rush attempts per game during his time with Gruden and 3.2 carries per game under Jackson. It's not a huge quantitative difference, but Dalton was noticeably a bigger part of the scheme in terms of designed runs and reads. That seems to play into RG III's strengths.

And, of course, it's pretty clear Dalton grew dramatically during his time with Jackson. His numbers are far more impressive in Jackson's two years at the helm:

Does this mean the Browns won't take a quarterback with the second overall pick?

This, in a way, is as fascinating of a question as the one surrounding Griffin's possible turnaround. Are the Browns done shopping for quarterbacks?

On one hand, it would be wrong to say that their quarterback problem is fixed. Griffin is obviously far from a sure thing; he's a lottery ticket, a project with a wildly successful season in his recent past and little since then to suggest that he'll be Cleveland's quarterback of the future. The Browns don't need to find their quarterback of the next 10 years in 2016, given that the organizational regime they've built over the last few months is likely (although not guaranteed, as Rob Chudzinski would remind you) to get two years at the helm before Jimmy Haslam makes his next set of changes.

At the same time, though, Griffin needs all the help he can get, and that help comes in the form of reps and minutes spent with Jackson. When Greg Cosell was breaking down Griffin in 2014, he wrote that Griffin needed "remedial training," which couldn't happen during the season. Into the offseason, RG III needs to be the center of Jackson's attention in a productive way to help rebuild his mechanics and habits.

As currently constructed, that makes sense for the Browns, given that there's nobody else on the roster into whom Cleveland would really care to invest that sort of valuable practice time. If the Browns draft a quarterback second overall, though? That calculus changes. Now you have two quarterbacks who are going to need as many reps as possible with Jackson and the first-team offense. Griffin's basically a developmental quarterback with enormous upside right now; the Browns would just add a second quarterback in that vein if they use their first-rounder on that guy. It's just not a logical way to go about constructing your roster.

It's possible that the Browns could be signing Griffin to work as what amounts to a backup and that they'll just turn the starting job and/or Jackson's practice reps over to Wentz or Goff as the No. 2 pick anyway, but if that's the case, why sign Griffin? If you just need a backup or a short-term bridge to one of the rookies, why not retain McCown or go after Fitzpatrick? Even somebody like Brandon Weeden has a higher floor than Griffin and would have come much cheaper.

There's no reason for Cleveland to sign Griffin unless they think he has a meaningful shot at being their starter, both in 2016 and the years to come. And if the Browns think that, it doesn't really make sense for them to go after a quarterback with the second overall pick. The fact that the Browns did go out and sign Griffin might very well suggest that they aren't happy with the quarterbacks available to them in this year's draft. Truthfully, I wouldn't be surprised if they went with Griffin and traded down to a team who is interested in Wentz to try to acquire more selections. It can be a dangerous game to link rationality to the Browns, but if you apply Occam's razor to this situation, it's hard to figure why they would sign Griffin and use their first-round pick on a passer.

Will Griffin succeed in Cleveland?

Naturally, let's finish with the question that's impossible to answer. It would help if he had a better offense to work with; this is a group that wasn't especially good last year and shed two of its three best linemen (Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz) as well as its top wide receiver (Travis Benjamin). The Browns did re-sign tight end Gary Barnidge, who had a breakout season at age 30, but their top wideout at the moment is Andrew Hawkins. RG III didn't have a great group of receivers by any means during his stunning season in Washington, but this is one of the more anonymous receiving corps in all of football. It would be a lifesaver if Cleveland could get back the suspended Josh Gordon, who played with Griffin at Baylor.

The follow-up question to that, I guess, is figuring out what would qualify as "success." Is the Griffin from 2012 going to come back and run rampant on the league as a superstar? Probably not. Too many things had to go right for that year to happen, and it could be impossible to get all of those factors to line up in the same way again. Even if Griffin had stayed healthy, he was so incredibly productive on a per-play basis in 2012 that it would have been difficult to keep up that level in the years to come.

Could he be a worthwhile starter, though? That's far more plausible. Griffin's still going to have his flaws, but if there's anybody who can mold an offense into a coherent fit for RG III and rebuild a broken passer into a viable quarterback, it's Hue Jackson. And for Griffin, who fell from on-field grace as much as any player in recent memory over his time in Washington, this is probably his last chance to turn things around and make folks believe that some semblance of the game-breaker from 2012 is still lurking beneath the personal logo. For RG III, it's still Browns or bust.