When his braided locks bob from the back of his helmet Sunday almost like a spoiler attached to the rear of a Bugatti racer, when Robert Griffin III stylishly jogs onto FedEx Field and is euphorically introduced to 80,000 of his new peripheral friends, many of whom will wear a replica of his No. 10 jersey, a milepost will have been reached.
Oh, it’s not about all the firsts — “first starting NFL QB born in the 1990s” or “first to throw for more than 300 yards in winning his first NFL game” or, heck, “first starting QB with braided hair — ever.” No, it’s the tantalizing reality after just two games that a young and spectacular player behind center already has given indications he can . . . last; that the job is his for years to come.
The larger significance of this Redskins home opener will come into full view not because of what will be said about Griffin but rather what finally can’t be said anymore of the most important position on the field in Washington:
When are we going to get a real quarterback?
From the fading stars of Mark Brunell and Donovan McNabb to the young and disoriented careers of Patrick Ramsey and Jason Campbell to the forever-changing offensive coordinators — from Danny Wuerffel, Tony Banks, Kent Graham, Shane Matthews, Tim Hasselbeck to Rex to Beck and back to Rex again — who among the fan base hasn’t used that line over and over for more than a decade?
When are we going to get a real quarterback?
Just like that, a well-worn phrase gone from the Redskins’ lexicon. Griffin brings unpredictability and excitement to almost every down, instantly rewarding the faith of Shanahan’s bold gamble, wildly exceeding expectations out of the gate.
Wouldn’t it be ironic, then, if the defense, for so many years the bedrock of any success the Redskins mustered, became the Achilles’ heel that Griffin and his high-octane offense was charged with bailing out?
The Redskins, hurting on the other side of the ball, have surrendered an average of 31.8 points and 384 yards in their last seven games, including the last five of 2011. They have kept just two of those seven teams under 350 yards. Meanwhile, Griffin has emerged in a blink. He’s the top producer among NFL fantasy quarterbacks because of what he’s done in a reality league.
Everything he does, in-game and postgame, elicits headlines. Two weeks ago came the inception of “Griffining,” the unrehearsed pose of Griffin sitting up, legs spread out, index fingers pointed toward the heavens, after an 88-yard touchdown to Pierre Garcon against the Saints. This week, “Gripen-ing,” his comments equating some of the Rams to essentially “dirty” cheap-shot artists.
Leatherheads like Warren Sapp and Lomas Brown, now safely embedded in a TV studio, questioned the temerity of a youngster popping off about any kind of contact. “It’s not the Big 12,” St. Louis running back Steven Jackson said. The equivalent of “Shut your mouth, rookie” could be extrapolated from many veterans. After all, isn’t RGIII the one who came up with “No pressure, no diamonds?”
Big picture, though: Amid the bulletin-board fodder, the kid planted a seed; keep those big paws off the merchandise. To his team and the league, Griffin is too valuable.
Indeed, the more he hits the ground, the more you understood why Shanahan kept him in cellophane wrap in the preseason. Without RGIII, there is no talk of victory.
Even if this year’s prospects dimmed when Brian Orakpo and Adam Carriker were lost for the season after suffering injuries last Sunday against the Rams, it’s already clear that Griffin has to stay on the field for the Redskins to be a bona fide playoff contender.
More than perhaps just a few established quarterbacks in the league, Griffin’s teammates on both sides of the ball need to have his back to get where they want to go.
Look, I don’t know if Griffin can become the first rookie quarterback drafted in the first two picks to lead an NFL team to a winning record, which is a pretty sobering stat. I do know that Washington finally has a seat at the table. Provided Griffin grows and doesn’t become Shanahan’s most prolific ballcarrier, this franchise is part of the NFL conversation for the next five years and beyond.
In two aesthetically appealing games by a 22-year-old with old-soul poise and perspective, all Griffin has done is perform theater — now-you-got-him-now-you-don’t runs off broken plays, beautiful spirals like the one Leonard Hankerson caught in stride behind the defense for a 68-yard touchdown last week in the loss at St. Louis.
What’s more, he doesn’t treat the red zone, inside the 20-yard line, as if there is an impenetrable force field several yards behind the goal line. That was the problem of so many of his predecessors. When Griffin gets close with the ball, he smells it and scores.
So much uncertainty abounds in so many NFL cities today over the future of young quarterbacks drafted the past couple of years. Yes, Andrew Luck and Cam Newton look like the goods. But no one really knows whether Christian Ponder, Ryan Tannehill, Blaine Gabbert, Brandon Weeden or Jake Locker have the requisite skills and smarts to become perennial Pro Bowlers and eventually lead their teams to Super Bowls. No one knows at the moment, of course, if Griffin can be that guy. But in two games he looks ahead of almost every young quarterback drafted a year ahead of him and at the top of his own class.
For a franchise that has been basically playing the “Whack-a-Mole” game and missing every time the quarterback position has popped up, Washington finally hit the mark and found its long-term solution.
And from a guy who once thought the Redskins had given up too much to acquire Griffin — who wrongly looked at the wreckage of Daniel Snyder’s past and assumed RGIII was merely the new bike in the toy store window the Redskins had to have, the way the owner had to have Albert Haynesworth and every other free agent or draft bust — I’m happy to admit I was wrong.
Robert Griffin III is not too good to be true. But two games in, he’s damn close. Hours before the 2012 home opener, when was the last time anyone said that about a Washington quarterback?
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.
More on the Redskins & NFL from the Post: