For Redskins, a big-game feel to Robert Griffin III's NFC East debut

October 20, 2012

The Washington Redskins once were a franchise that collected Super Bowl trophies and considered playing meaningful games in December and beyond an annual rite. The arrival of rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III has sparked hopes that perhaps it can be that way again in the not-too-distant future, that the team can win consistently enough to revive a certain ho-hum attitude about playing for a share of first place in late October. ¶ But the Redskins of the Griffin era aren’t quite there yet. There is still something fresh and new about the prized newcomer taking his team into a game Sunday at MetLife Stadium against the New York Giants with a piece of the NFC East lead at stake. ¶ “This is absolutely a big game,” Redskins defensive end Stephen Bowen said. “This is to be ahead of the pack in the East. . . . I think everybody is approaching it with the mentality of it’s almost like a playoff atmosphere.” ¶ The Redskins’ record is a modest 3-3. But they’re coming off an uplifting victory last Sunday at home against the Minnesota Vikings in which Griffin threw for one touchdown and ran for two others, the final one a 76-yard dash that sealed the outcome just when the Redskins seemed to be on the verge of unraveling.

Griffin’s sprint made it clear, once more, that the team has possibilities whenever he is in the lineup. The Redskins have stopped next to no one on defense, and their offense is about to play for the fourth time in seven games this season without would-be top wide receiver Pierre Garcon. Yet six games into his NFL career, Griffin is the league’s third-rated passer, one of its top rushers and the Redskins have become relevant and interesting again.

On Sunday, perhaps, they will begin to learn whether they are a threat to contend in their own division this season. Griffin’s first NFC East game comes on the road against the defending Super Bowl champions, who occupy first place with a record of 4-2. They haven’t played consistently well this season, but they’re coming off a lopsided, highly impressive win at San Francisco last Sunday.

“It’s always a big game any time you’re playing a divisional game,” said Redskins linebacker Lorenzo Alexander. “The closer you get to November and December, they become bigger and more meaningful because that kind of sets people up for the playoffs. But a divisional game is almost like two games. You knock somebody off in your division a little bit, set the tone and then obviously we’d be in first place.”

There was a bit of back-and-forth banter during the week, with Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul issuing a long-range warning to Griffin not to run the ball to Pierre-Paul’s side of the field. When told about that comment by Pierre-Paul, Redskins left tackle Trent Williams said: “I don’t know why he would say something about that. Maybe he knows something I don’t.”

But there also was respect for Griffin voiced by Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora. After saying during the offseason that Griffin needed to earn his “RGIII” nickname and dubbing him “Bob” in the meantime, Umenyiora said during the week that Griffin already has played well enough in his short time in the NFL to be called “Sir Robert.”

Once the talk ends, the Redskins know they must keep the Giants’ celebrated pass rush from turning Griffin’s first divisional game into a miserable experience.

“They do have the best [defensive] front four that the league has to offer and it’s a huge challenge,” Williams said. “We have to go in and play well. Their front four is the reason they win championships.”

The Redskins totaled only 11 wins in Coach Mike Shanahan’s two seasons before Griffin’s arrival. But they managed to beat the Giants twice last season, even while they won only three other games.

“We’re focusing on this one and trying to set the tone because obviously we know they’re defending champs and they’re going to come out with everything they have, especially with us beating them twice last year,” Alexander said. “They didn’t like that at all, especially with people saying, ‘Well, you lost to the Redskins twice.’ Hearing that, you know you’re going to get their best effort.”

Said Redskins fullback Darrel Young: “We almost potentially knocked them out of the playoffs if they didn’t beat the Jets and the Cowboys in their last two games. Of course it’s on their minds and they want to get revenge.”

Bowen said he thinks last season’s two victories mean the Redskins will have a bit more respect from the Giants entering the game. But Williams expressed skepticism that last season’s two wins will have any lasting effect.

“I don’t even think they would remember something like that,” Williams said. “I mean, they won the Super Bowl, obviously. So you do something like that, you kind of forget about all the bad things that happened that season.”

Even so, Williams declared, “It’s a huge game, definitely.”

The Redskins point out that they’ve had other decent starts to seasons before Griffin arrived. And no matter what happens Sunday, they will continue to believe that their future with Griffin is bright. But there is an ever-growing sense of anticipation every time he takes the field, and the Redskins can only hope the memorable moments already orchestrated by Griffin continue to pile up Sunday.

“It feels good to just be a different team,” Young said. “It’s a new year, a fresh start for everybody. We’re doing some of the little things that we needed to work on last year. We’re still trying to get better.”

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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