Robert Griffin III went into his rookie season under intense pressure. He came into 2013 with even more.
Improbably, that pressure has ramped up again.
Coach Mike Shanahan, fired by the Washington Redskins on Monday, leaves a wealthy franchise with considerably less riches on the roster. He also leaves a quarterback expected to fill that gap.
Griffin is moving into LeBron-in-Cleveland territory: charged with figuring out a way to do it all with limited help. It wasn't easy when he was drafted to a talent-poor team two years ago. It got harder after his ACL injury last January. It will be harder than ever in 2014, considering there won't be a polarizing coach to take part or most of the blame. It's on Griffin now.
In one way, the quarterback's way is paved. Shanahan, who struggled to fully take advantage of a talent like Griffin, is gone. He'll almost certainly be replaced with someone who Griffin likes. If the new Redskins coach is able to best deploy Griffin, the quarterback will have more space and more opportunity to thrive.
That, however, will only add to the pressure on Griffin. If he can't make it work without Shanahan, what does that say about him?
[Related: RG3 expresses gratitude to Shanahan]
It says, of course, what is already being said. Griffin is getting plenty of blame for the Redskins' troubles this season. While his 10-6 rookie year was filled with signature moments of greatness, almost from the beginning of an NFC East championship run, this season's signature moment during a 3-13 campaign was Griffin throwing a late-game lame duck into the end zone in Philadelphia, which was easily intercepted by cornerback Brandon Boykin. That came at the conclusion of one of the worst games of his career, in which he had 57 passing yards in the first three quarters. The ending of that game was all too symbolic: the division-rival Eagles were on their way to taking the Redskins' crown, with their new-age head coach in Chip Kelly and their young Texas-bred quarterback in Nick Foles. Griffin, the former Baylor star who said he was trying to throw the ball out of the end zone, was on his way to being benched.
Next season, whoever the head coach is in Washington, Griffin and the Redskins will have to live up to the accelerating standard being set by the Eagles. The quarterback will not have a superstar rusher like LeSean McCoy to help him out (no offense to Alfred Morris), and he will not have an offensive line as good as that in Philadelphia. The Eagles' defense is much improved, and that can't be said about the crew in Washington. Most tellingly, Foles is looking like a second-year quarterback who makes most of the right decisions, and Griffin isn't.
Now add the fact that the Redskins' top pick, No. 2 overall, is going to the Rams, who acquired that prize in exchange for the right to draft Griffin in 2012. Shanahan and the D.C. brass then used a fourth-round selection in 2012 to draft Kirk Cousins, who could be shipped in an offseason trade. All of this just adds to the scrutiny on Griffin. Whatever fan-base patience that shielded him during his rookie campaign and again when he nobly hurried back from his injury to start in September will wane quickly next season and the seasons to come.
Shanahan faced the media one last time on Monday, once again giving his side of the story. He noted severe salary cap restrictions and a lack of talent during his tenure. Perhaps those are legitimate reasons for failure. Perhaps that was yet another face-saving move from someone who has become known for that. Either way, the excuses serve to dump another load of pressure on Griffin. It's his team now. It's his problem now.
Is that a better situation? Maybe. Look at the leap Cam Newton made in his third season – after offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski moved on. The Panthers, however, have a sinister defense. The pressure on Newton has arguably lessened under coordinator Mike Shula and quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey. Newton has gone from beleaguered to buoyant.
No such relief is likely for Griffin. An elite defense is not walking through that door in D.C. At least not yet.
Maybe Griffin can overcome that, considering how charismatic, poised, intelligent and talented he is. Last year's division title was magical, and it gave one of the richest franchises in sports as much hope and fervor as it's had since the glory years of Joe Gibbs.
The hope is still there. The fervor, however, now carries more of a troubling weight.