Robert Griffin III demonstrates leadership qualities rare for a rookie of any sport

Jason Reid
Columnist November 28, 2012

Some of Robert Griffin III’s best moves of the past few weeks didn’t come against Eagles or Cowboys. They occurred only in the presence of Redskins. Despite being Joe Montana-good in consecutive victories over NFC East foes, Griffin was also effective when all he moved were his lips.

With the Redskins reeling two weeks ago after returning from their bye week, Griffin challenged his teammates to salvage their season during a rousing team address about accountability and effort that, many players said, had them ready to run through the locker room walls even before Griffin had finished.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

Griffin has ascended to the team’s top leadership position almost as quickly as he joined the ranks of the NFL’s most exciting quarterbacks. He was elected one of the six team captains after the bye week. Then he backed up his big talk with follow-me performances that helped the Redskins climb back into the division race. Griffin’s all-around take-charge approach is almost unheard of for a first-year player, let alone a 22-year-old playing football’s most difficult position. But he’s pulling it off — without making enemies.

“I’ve never been part of anything like this,” said tight end Chris Cooley, a nine-year veteran. “You just don’t see rookies come in and do what he’s doing, and I’m not even talking about the stuff on the field, which is incredible.

“I don’t think you could find one guy in here who doesn’t believe in him and believe in what he says. The way he came in here and was able to relate to guys who have been here for years, and to be so comfortable doing it, and to make guys feel like they should [follow him] . . . I’m just totally blown away.”

Cooley is among many in awe of Griffin as much for his interpersonal skills as for the gifts he displays with a football in his hands. Griffin projects confidence when he speaks. He exudes authority in his actions. Everything he does seems intended show he’s got it all under control.

On draft night in April, Griffin, through individual text messages, introduced himself to last season’s starting offensive linemen. Just a little personal touch to begin establishing relationships with the guys he needs most. “Little things like that add up when you’re talking about believing in a guy,” left tackle Trent Williams said.

Griffin also reached out to team leaders such as Cooley, linebacker London Fletcher and wide receiver Santana Moss. He assured them that he planned to work as hard as he could to prove himself. “Said what he was gonna do, then he did it,” Moss said. “Can’t help but respect that.”

Rookies in professional team sports are supposed to act like well-behaved children: seen and not heard. They’re expected to zip it and learn from the “old heads” on the roster. Even the most celebrated rookies get rapped on the knuckles if they forget their place.

Michael Jordan’s rookie celebrity angered some of his superstar rivals so much that they supposedly conspired against him during the 1985 NBA All-Star Game. In what came to be called the “freeze out” game, Jordan’s teammates on the East squad ignored him on offense. Members of the opposing West team played harder on defense against him than players usually do in the glorified exhibition. Jordan finished with only seven points and shot 2 for 9. He also never forgot the shabby treatment and spent the rest of his career terrorizing the league.

Griffin’s exposure is approaching Jordan-esque levels. He is already one of the faces of the NFL. He has national endorsement deals with Gatorade, Subway and Nissan, among others, and is vying for the corporate pitchman standard Jordan held throughout his playing career. There are indeed millions of reasons for Redskins veterans to resent Griffin, or at least tune him out.

The Redskins, however, have eyes. They watched Griffin achieve perfection in the rout of the Eagles (he’s one of only two rookie quarterbacks in league history to have a perfect passer rating in a game). They celebrated after he led a drive that resulted in a game-winning field goal against Tampa Bay. They cheered as Griffin all but finished a victory over Minnesota with an electrifying 76-yard touchdown run.

At the time of Griffin’s speech to his teammates, the Redskins had five division games remaining in their final seven. Griffin had no doubts Washington could make a late-season playoff push. “There were a few things I needed to say,” Griffin said. He promised to dominate, and the offense has produced 69 points in the past two games.

Time and time again, Griffin has walked the walk after talking the talk, “and you can’t help but want to follow a man like that,” injured linebacker Brian Orakpo said recently. “I know how it looks, man: You [would] think some guys wouldn’t be happy about a rookie coming in and being all out front like Robert.

“I don’t know about other teams, but I can tell you how it is here: Nobody has even talked about him being [a rookie] for a long time. We all know who he is. And when he talks about guys working hard and doing it the right way, we see him do it.”

Griffin has reinforced his let’s-fight-to-the-finish message in one-on-one sessions with teammates. It’s still well received.

“Ultimately, he understands that we live and die with his performance at this point in his career,” special teams standout Lorenzo Alexander said. “He put us on his shoulders and he’s also saying some pretty motivational things about what’s at stake. Basically, he’s doing everything you could ask of him.”

Griffin is talking, his teammates are listening and the Redskins are relevant. He is proof you don’t have to be the most experienced guy in the room to lead — you just have to be the right one.

For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.

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