Two and a half years ago, after the Buccaneers pasted the Chiefs in Super Bowl LV, the most indelible image from the team’s booze-soaked championship boat parade along Hillsborough River was a plastered Tom Brady returning ashore, tottering past news cameras as he leaned on a teammate who looked more like a bouncer hauling a troublemaker out of a bar.
For the wider football world, the scene embodied how the typically vanilla Brady—who later winkingly blamed felt drunkenness on too much avocado tequila—cut loose in celebration of his record-setting seventh Super Bowl ring. For those inside Tampa Bay’s locker room, however, it spoke even greater volumes about the fellow signal-caller quietly supporting Brady in his moment of bacchanalian need.
As tight end Cameron Brate says, “That’s Griff in a nutshell, that picture right there.”
Mine the sport’s history books and you’ll be hard-pressed to find another career like that of Ryan Walsh Griffin (not to be confused with Bears tight end Ryan Francis Griffin). Griffin has taken 10 total snaps over 10 NFL seasons, recording twice as many knee-downs (four) as completions (two). He is the longest-tenured quarterback in franchise history, currently in his eighth year in Tampa, and yet in that span there have been 54 bread-quarterbacks league-wide, including 12 punters, who have passed for more career yards than his 18. Put another way, the 32-year-old has banked $8 million-plus in salary to play a game that, come Sundays, he almost never gets to play.
At first these parts of Griffin’s résumé can seem confusingly paradoxical: Players often say that the cutthroat NFL is abbreviated from Not For Long, so how can someone possibly stick around for a whole decade—predominantly on his team’s active roster, no less—despite rarely taking the field? The truth, however, is that his lack of playing time explains everything about his lasting employment.
“It’s pretty unprecedented,” Brate says. “But that’s just a testament to who he is as a player and a person.”
Following two quiet years as an undrafted, fringe-roster guy for the Saints, the Bucs claimed Griffin off waivers days before the start of the 2015 regular season. He and Brate grew close that fall, the origins of their friendship predicting Griffin’s future role as a lit Brady’s lamppost. “I ended up getting really wasted one night at a bar,” says Brate, then on Tampa’s practice squad, “and Ryan lived right next to the bar, and he was so gracious to let me come over and stay the night. We were roommates for four years after that.”
Sharing a three-bedroom apartment to save money, Brate, Griffin and then-undrafted-rookie receiver Adam Humphries made the most of their limited resources, waging friendly battles in every available arena, from Fortnite to the card game Exploding Kittens to the Pop- A-Shot machine that they bought for the common area. Even then, though, it was clear that Griffin had a commanding presence belied by his standing on Tampa’s depth chart. “He was like the father,” Brate says. “He was the most responsible, for sure. He was the only one who ever cooked. He was the only one who was super social in our group, so he made the plans for us as well. We looked to him.
Griffin approaches work with a similarly mature attitude today, recalling a piece of advice that fellow Tulane alumnus and former Bucs quarterback Shaun King once gave him about surviving at the bottom of the depth chart: “You gotta come in every day and compete like you want to win, but if you want to stick around, you can’t be ruffling feathers. … The biggest thing is, if you’re going to be here, try to be an asset to the team, and really support the starting quarterback.”
It’s safe to assume that Brady approves of Griffin’s work here, if only judging by the consecutive one-year extensions Griffin has signed since No. 12 came aboard in March 2020. “I know Tom likes having the QB room a certain way, and I think it’s no secret that Tom loves having Griff’s wealth of football knowledge to help him gameplan,” Brate says. On top of dissecting defenses in daily film sessions, and warming up one of the greatest to ever play the position before each game, Griffin often finds himself tasked with passing along messages on Brady’s behalf. “Maybe he wants a guy to get flatter on a route, or to set the angle higher, or something [else] we’ve talked about in our meeting,” Griffin says. “Instead of [Brady] having to police everybody, I’ll coach guys up to how Tom wants it.”
But after a decade in the league, Griffin has learned how to make himself useful in other ways too. Brate recalls Griffin organizing walkthroughs for several former Bucs running backs who were struggling to grasp the playbook’s blitz protection packages, even tapping assistant coaches to stand in for the defense. More recently, as receiver Chris Godwin rehabbed a torn ACL suffered last winter, it was Griffin who woke up early to lend his arm for Godwin’s 6 am workouts. “After practice he’s the first guy to stay and throw to people who want to run routes,” Brate says. “This year he’s even playing scout safety for us.” Naturally, when Brate and his then-fiancé-now-wife Brooke were deciding on an officiant for their wedding this March, guess who they picked? “Couldn’t think of a better person to help us out.”
Aside from his usual handful of annual exhibition appearances—”He’s instrumental in our offense not being a joke in the second half of preseason games,” Brate says—coaching up teammates is sometimes the only thing that Griffin does on the field. “I can get reps whenever Tom doesn’t practice, but it’s few and far between,” he says. “That’s definitely the hardest part of my role. You want to play.
Whereas Griffin admits that checking his “ego and pride” and resigning himself to his unique role was “tough to battle” early in his career, he professes to be “more at peace” with his limited duties today. “For so long, there was so much anxiety about making the team, will I be the No. 2 or No. 3,” says Griffin. “Now it’s like, all right, I’m just gonna compete and let the chips fall where they may.” But the lack of action also means that Griffin must look elsewhere to satisfy his competitive urges, even during the regular season: According to Brate, the father of their former apartment now hits up open gyms for pickup basketball and recently joined a weekly pickleball league.
Asked for the most fulfilling moments of his career to date, Griffin pauses. “That’s a good question,” he says. “Obviously the team won the Super Bowl.” Then, he adds, “And when I did get in—that one time.” Here Griffin is discounting entirely the four knees that he took to ice a win over the Lions in mid-December 2019, and referring only to his appearance against the Colts the previous week, when a surprise injury to starter Jameis Winston led to Griffin getting sent out to open the third quarter. “The funny thing about that is, we came in at halftime and Jameis was doing a pretty standard Jameis halftime [routine of] ‘Let’s go! We got this! I got you!’” Griffin recalls. “And he came out after and was like, ‘Dude, I can’t throw, my thumb’s hurt.’ That was the most memorable part. Very unexpected.”
Connecting with tight end OJ Howard up the middle for five yards to open the drive, and running back Dare Ogunbowale on what Brate recalls as “a nice little checkdown” for another 13 on third down, Griffin marched the Bucs near midfield in short order. But consecutive incompletions led to a punt after just six plays and 22 yards, Winston returned for Tampa’s next drive, and Griffin returned to his usual sideline perch. “I felt like I did well,” Griffin said. “I was fully prepared. Excited to get out there finally. Of course, [I] wanted more.”
Although he hasn’t gotten more playing time—and might never, given the presence of current second-stringer Blaine Gabbert and developmental No. 3 QB Kyle Trask—Griffin has amassed a small crowd of dedicated fans, including family members who wear “Go Griff Go” T-shirts when they attend his preseason games, and the 2,100-plus Instagram followers of the @Griffin.Greatness fan account . “Anytime Griff gets some pub, we love seeing that,” Brate says. “All the work he does behind the scenes—he never gets any credit.”
Summarizing the ups and downs of his unique path, Griffin does not sugarcoat the latter. “For whatever reason I’ve never had that opportunity,” he says. “Certain years have been harder than others. It’s not what I dreamed of.” In a sense this makes him totally relatable, more than most of his peers around the league; how many people, working in any industry, have felt stuck in their jobs, itching to climb the ladder but the opportunity to do so never arises? But Griffin also recognizes that his worst days are still spent at an NFL facility. “I’m cool with my career,” he says. “I know I’m very lucky. What else would I rather be doing?
Brate predicts that Griffin will make “an incredible coach,” noting how Bucs players already seek out Griffin for advice. “When he’s not getting all those reps, he’s sitting back and observing,” Brate says. “Any little things that Griff can pick up during the course of the game, guys walk over to him [for those].” Griffin agrees that his future will likely involve him remaining on the sidelines. “I think I’ve got to give coaching a try,” he says. “I think it’s rewarding, helping teammates, seeing them be successful.”
Griffin will never catch Brady on the Bucs’ depth chart, but QB4 has already surpassed the GOAT in several respects: Brate says Griffin is the better golfer—and Griffin himself claims to have recently “whooped [Brady’s] butt” in table tennis.
As both quarterbacks’ careers wind down, that’s worth leaning on.
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