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Face of franchise looms over Gruden’s shoulder


The news on Monday was great for Robert Griffin III: His left ankle is dislocated, not fractured, and it will not require surgery. He could be ready to go again at some point this season.

The news on Monday was mixed for coach Jay Gruden: He could face a delicate decision if RG3 heals quickly and expects to play, regardless of Kirk Cousins’ performance in his stead.

Not that Gruden has anything but best wishes for Griffin, but life would be a lot easier if RG3 was ruled out for the season.

Aside from announcing that Griffin’s ankle will be put in a cast and evaluated further in a couple of weeks, Gruden offered no timetable on the quarterback’s return. The first, inevitable “what if” was raised shortly thereafter.

Suppose Cousins is fantastic and the team is rolling. Will Griffin automatically get his job back once he’s cleared to play?

“We’ll cross that bridge when that comes,” Gruden said during a news conference at team headquarters. “Right now we’re going to prepare with Kirk Cousins as the starter and Robert is going to rehab. All decisions after that will come after that.”

It’s too early to make the decision now, but Gruden had to choose one of three options for responding to the question.

He could’ve offered the only answer that would help RG3 sleep better: “As soon as he’s ready, Robert is the man again, period.” That’s what a face-of-the-franchise expects to hear, but there are no guarantees when coming off a 3-13 campaign followed by lackluster performances in exhibitions and the season opener.

Or, Gruden could’ve offered the reply that’s probably rolling around in his head, the answer he would give after an injection of truth serum: “Are you kidding? If Cousins plays lights-out football and we’re battling for the playoffs, I’d be crazy to make a change.”

Instead of going with either extreme, Gruden laid up with a ‘we’ll see.’ That safe, middle-of-the-road approach must feel like a gut shot to RG3.

Griffin exudes supreme confidence in his ability to perform at a high level, overall, and in Gruden’s offense, specifically. But he can see that Cousins looked great in Sunday’s 41-10 shellacking of Jacksonville. Griffin knows he has struggled with footwork, mechanics, timing and decisiveness – areas where Cousins clearly has the upper hand at this juncture in their respective careers.

RG3 doesn’t appear to have a fragile psyche, so the competition shouldn’t bother him. However, his physical stoutness is a growing concern for many.

He suffered a major knee injury in college, another one during his rookie season and now a major ankle injury that will sideline him for several weeks. The setbacks would be less worrisome if he was a traditional quarterback whose legs weren’t responsible for large measures of his success.

But his style of play and slight frame have been incompatible with good health so far.

Everyone except Gruden seems to wonder about RG3’s potential for longevity.

“This is an unfortunate injury,” Gruden said. “You know he had an unfortunate knee injury and this was a fluke deal where he’s rolling out and got his ankle caught in the ground in an awkward way. I don’t think it speaks to his durability. I think they’re just fluke injuries and they happen from time to time to certain players. Hopefully when he recovers from this, it’ll be the last one he ever has.”

If this rehab and recovery are anything like the process when RG3 came back from his most recent knee surgery, he’ll be ready and raring to play sooner than expected … and perhaps sooner than is advisable.

His barely existent patience will be even thinner if Cousins is enjoying success. That’s not insecurity; it’s human nature. It’s also knowing NFL history, cases where injuries opened the door for Tom Brady, Kurt Warner and Colin Kaepernick.

There’s no upside to going with a rusty RG3 if the team is doing well late in the season, But that won’t stop him from wanting his job back. Then, Gruden would face a full-blown quarterback controversy, based on the team’s investment as much as anything else.

At some point, though, the heavy expenditure of draft picks won’t be a good enough reason to stick with Griffin, especially if he can’t stay on the field to be the dynamic playmaker we’ve seen in flashes. He still wants – and needs – to prove he was worth the price.

Gruden will have an easier decision to make if Cousins blows this opportunity to show he’s a capable starter and not just a nice backup.

But strange as it seems, life would be much simpler for Gruden and everyone involved – except RG3 – if they knew the face of the franchise was done for the season.

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