A crucial part of intellectual maturation is recognizing that most decisions-even ones you disagree with-are, in fact, made as the result of a logical thought process. Our natural inclination when we hear about things we strongly disagree with is to say “That makes no sense!”. But as good as it may feel, howling at the moon doesn’t solve anything. Instead, we must strive to understand how the decision was made.
Such thinking is crucial in international relations. Often, tyrannical leaders will do things that initially confound policymakers. It’s natural, for example, to react to the latest North Korean missile launch by saying “Wow, Kim Jong-un is a crazy moron!”. But assuming that decisionmakers are both self-interested (that is, they wish to pursue ends that will benefit them) and rational (they have the ability to reason), the truth is probably a lot more complex.
Since we’re talking about tyrannical regimes that rule over impoverished regions, the Cleveland Browns are naturally our next topic. Moments ago, news broke that the Browns agreed to terms with Robert Griffin III, the enigmatic former quarterback of the Washington Redskins. The sports media have been on this scoop for weeks, and the first blurb I saw in Team Stream made me apoplectic. RG3 is by all appearances physically and mentally broken. He’s undergone three massive surgeries to important body parts; most sports fans probably remember the gruesome image of his knee crumbling in the 2013 NFC Wild Card game.
It’s widely accepted that, for whatever reason, Griffin lacks a rudimentary understanding of the pro offense. His former teammate, tight end Chris Cooley, told the Washington Post that he was struggling to execute even high-school level passing game concepts.
By letting four under-30 free agent starters walk, the Browns have made it clear that they are not trying to compete for at least four years. Given his history of chafing against any sort of job competition (Cooley has written more about how RGIII couldn’t deal with fellow QB Kirk Cousins), he certainly won’t make for a good mentor. And he isn’t young or healthy enough to be a project*.
Furthermore, the Browns happened to have a player under contract who fits the mold of a “bridge” quarterback: Josh McCown. McCown is old and unselfish enough to understand that he may not always be the starter; when benched for Johnny Manziel he was nothing but a consummate professional. And while this may surprise people who didn’t watch the Browns last season (rational actors?), the dude can still play. McCown posted a 93.3 passer rating with an historically bad run game and something called a “Brian Hartline” as his second receiver. Thus my understandable moon-howling response.
But the Browns brain-trust is not made up of dumb men, and while they did willingly join an awful organization, I have reason to believe they’re still self-interested. So allow me to theorize as to why they’d make what is, on its face, an incredibly stupid decision, listed from most to least likely. I don’t agree with any of these ideas, but they’re all viable. (They’re also not mutually exclusive.)
Browns management wants to sell tickets, and they think there are enough dumb fans out there to do it. Sure, most of your friends probably think RG3 is awful, but how many of your friends are buying season tickets? The reality is that every team has a large base of under-informed but over-opinionated fans, and in Cleveland it’s reasonable to assume a big portion of this base will selectively remember the RG3 from Baylor and 2012. It’s also not a stretch to think these same fans will overestimate what even a healthy QB could accomplish for an otherwise-gutted roster.
They think the concept of a fellow-QB mentor is overrated, and RG3 is one of the only under-35 former starters on the market. Brett Favre actively worked against Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, and the latter is now the best QB in the game. Scores of Tom Brady backups have turned out to be awful. So who’s to say that having a heady veteran at the position will really help a rookie develop better? RG3 hates being on the bench and is going to make anyone work his tail off to keep him there.
They view RG3 as a lottery ticket on a team with no chance of winning anyways. Management shares all of my same doubts about Griffin becoming a good player, but views the downside as far more limited/near-zero. Maybe there’s a 10% chance he turns into a shell of his former self; if so, great. If not, they don’t think the locker room and on-field ramifications will hurt the team’s long-term future.
They have reason to believe Griffin can thrive in Cleveland. The Redskins might be the only organization in the NFL worse than the Browns. Their handling of Griffin was atrocious. New head coach Hue Jackson-widely respected as an offensive innovator and quarterback whisperer-sees enough good things on tape from Griffin that he can translate into a simplified but dynamic scheme. This could make Cleveland surprisingly entertaining and competitive until the calvary arrives.
The Hayek in me thinks that DePodesta, Brown, Jackson et al are outsmarting themselves here; I think they’re underestimating how huge intangibles are for the long-run success of an NFL team, and I think RG3 will be awful in that regard. But admittedly, they have a lot more at stake (jobs, money, reputation) than I do (shame, emotional state, social status).
Wait a second…
*Note: for a more traditional pocket passer, it would be totally reasonable for a player of Griffin’s age to make a turnaround within the Browns’ potential window of contention (his age 30-32 seasons). However, RG3 has always relied on his mobility for success, and has since suffered serious LCL, ACL, and ankle injuries.