One of the last times any of us will see Robert Griffin in a neutral sweatshirt. In a month, he'll be the face of the Washington Redskins. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File)
Thursday, Mar 15 at 2:48 AM
The fascinating part of trades in sport is the parallel narratives they generate. It’s easy for fans to track what each team gives up and receives, sizing up the swap and eventually determining which team got the short end of the stick. When the trade includes a star player, a premium draft pick, or more than one of either, it takes on a new level of juiciness.
It’s these blockbuster deals that in a single stroke are capable of altering a franchise’s trajectory and changing the way legacies are written. By these parameters, the recent Rams-Redskins exchange is one of the most fascinating in league history.
Here are the eye-popping particulars: Washington sends St. Louis their 2012 first (6) and second (39), along with their first in both 2013 and 2014; the Rams in return send the Skins the number two overall pick in this April’s draft, meaning the right to select Heisman trophy-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III. If they elect to hold on to all of their picks, St. Louis and new head coach Jeff Fisher now have NINE picks in the first two rounds over the next three drafts. And Washington has…RGIII.
The pressure on players, coaches and GMs alike to win in the NFL is already immense. But the implicit expectations required for either side to swing a deal like this ramps the urgency up to eleven.
For starters, by making their pick available, the Rams are signaling to quarterback Sam Bradford that they believe he’s capable of leading a championship-caliber squad. After an auspicious rookie season, the top pick from 2010 regressed last season. He was nagged by injury all year and missed six games, but the message to Bradford is clear: his front office expects him to become a top-flight QB as the talent level around him is raised.
The burden of elevating that talent level falls to first-year head coach Jeff Fisher and first-year GM Les Snead. This trade serves as indication that they have no intention of being timid in this endeavor. They identified the fact that this draft has two blue-chip QBs, and since they needed neither, they used their leverage to command the largest haul for a single pick, ever. But after eight straight losing seasons and multiple “regime changes,” they clearly have a long way to go.
Rams fans now certainly hold the expectation that Fisher and Snead will use this bounty of picks to transform their organization, a la “The Great Train Robbery” the Cowboys used to build their dynasty after flipping Herschel Walker. If they are unable to do so, that failure will become the prime bullet point in Fisher's career.
The pressure is perhaps greater for Bradford. When a QB is selected first overall, it is expected (fair or not) that he will become the cornerstone of the franchise. And that’s before the club acquires nine premium picks over a three-year period. So, despite having a blank canvas and lots of premium paint to make beautiful football art with, turning the Rams around will be no easy task.
But if the perceived obligation to succeed for Fisher and Bradford has been amplified, it has been maximized for Mike Shanahan and, more so, Griffin III.
He will become the first player to ever be selected with a pick that was swapped for three-first round choices. RG3 goes to D.C. knowing the Skins have bet the kids’ college fund on him, but those who claim to know say that if anyone can handle that psychological dumbbell press, it’s him.
The Redskins have finished at the bottom of the division six of the last eight years, with the two most recent cellar parties the results of Shanahan’s 11-21 run at the helm. GM Bruce Allen felt the fury of a disheartened fan base frustrated with a run of twelve starters under center in ten years. Spurred by that and Griffin’s projected transcendence, he pushed more chips to the center of the table than anyone ever has for a pick.
Griffin’s level of success in the league will not only dictate what the next decade of Redskins’ football looks like, it will also determine how Mike Shanahan is remembered. As of now, his legacy is that of a good coach who rode John Elway to two Super Bowls in Denver, and then ended with a thud in Washington. Shanahan wants the Hall of Fame, and unless Griffin turns out to be the type of player worth this historic haul, that won’t happen.
This is not so say that if things don’t go smoothly it will all be Griffin’s fault, and in fact, he’s helped public image-wise by being a Redskin, because it’s assumed that they (read: team owner Little Danny Snyder) will find a way to screw things up. But still, the narrative of RG3’s pro career already has a marvelously distinct tint to it, one that will color his story going forward.
Rare is the single transaction that so severely adjusts the way we understand the stories of players and coaches and franchises. The demand for success for both teams implied by this trade is matched by the confidence all parties had in their strategy.
It’s possible that the seeds of the next decade of NFC dominance were planted by this deal. Of course, it’s also possible that both franchises will continue to toil in Sunday-at-noon-obscurity. Either way, the failures and successes of each organization along the way will be magnified, and are now inextricably linked to one another.