The best part about Robert Griffin III’s first regular season start wasn’t that he led the Washington Redskins to a surprising victory. What made Griffin’s we-haven’t-seen-this-before performance so special was that it inspired hope among Redskins fans.
With each big play Griffin made passing and runningagainst the New Orleans Saints, he rewarded the long-suffering Redskins supporters who have remained emotionally and financially invested in the team despite a run of mediocrity that is approaching two decades. The fans’ payoff materialized in the form of a charismatic newcomer whose output against the Saints actually exceeded the enormous hype surrounding him.
Griffin’s stats told part of the story: 320 yards passing, two touchdowns, no interceptions, 73 percent completion rate and a 139.9 passer rating. A history lesson is needed for the rest: In being selected as the NFC offensive player of the week, Griffin became the first rookie to win the award after his first game, in either conference, since its inception in 1984. He is also the first rookie to throw for at least 300 yards in winning his first game.
We thought Griffin, 22, wouldn’t need long to show the NFL he’s advanced for his years. As it turned out, Griffin already seems all grown up.
“With what he went out there and did . . . I don’t know why any fans wouldn’t be excited again about the Redskins,” tight end Fred Davis said. “I mean, isn’t that what fans want? Don’t they want to have a guy like that on their team to root for?”
Absolutely. True fans possess a never-ending belief that, no matter how poorly their favorite teams have fared recently or historically, their devotion eventually will be rewarded. Whether their teams routinely finish near the top or the bottom of the standings, fans are most drawn to players who possess the ability to achieve individual greatness while providing the cornerstone of team success. Watching the best athletes work — while they foster the belief that, at any moment, they can accomplish something truly astonishing — is what makes sports fun.
In the NFL, teams such as the New England Patriots, New York Giants and Green Bay Packers are leaders in providing those faith-rewarding moments to fans. The Redskins haven’t been on the list since Joe Gibbs packed up his office the first time.
When Gibbs was winning Super Bowls, longtime Redskins observers say, the District was like a close-knit small town. The Redskins’ success — and the players who entertained while helping Washington win — inspired a feeling of community.
It’s too early to declare that the Redskins are headed for a better-than-most-expected season. But after a summer of watching the Nationals unexpectedly break through barriers, Griffin’s first outing has us wondering whether the Redskins could surprise as well.
The Griffin-generated wave of optimism was in full force Monday. As everyone opened another work week, the chatter among fans was about what they’d seen and might be in store.
The Redskins’ next opponent definitely took notice. St. Louis Rams Coach Jeff Fisher said he “saw the same thing everybody else saw,” he said. “As people were saying, that’s historical.”
Part of it was the sense, while watching Griffin toy with the Saints’ veteran defense, that we were witnessing “The Next Big Thing.” It’s the same feeling many experienced when Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg signaled his arrival with a 14-strikeout debut against the Pittsburgh Pirates in June 2010.
Strasburg and Griffin actually have similar situations. They’re uniquely gifted athletes who are expected to revive the District’s top sports franchises from years of frustration.
Over the summer, Strasburg emerged as one of Major League Baseball’s best starters, and the Nationals became playoff contenders, a status they appear set to maintain for years to come.
One impressive victory doesn’t suddenly make the Redskins, who went 11-21 over the past two seasons, a playoff-caliber team. It’s still too early to tell whether they’re even a . 500 team.
So why should Griffin get so much credit after only one game? The Redskins have had other productive players, and the team has fooled us before. (Remember Jim Zorn’s 6-2 start in 2008? Remember his 2-6 finish?)
“It’s different. With Robert, you think anything is possible,” outside linebacker Brian Orakpo said. “It’s just one game, yeah. You understand that. But watching him [during the Saints game] . . . you believe. You just believe in him and where he can help us go. You understand why the fans are [excited]. Man, we’re excited.”
Griffin declined to take full credit for the widespread good mood. But here’s a fact: When a player can become a cultural icon in his first game, he’s something special. Griffin did.
A picture of Griffin seated on the Superdome field holding his arms upright to celebrate his first career touchdown pass has inspired “Griffining”: Nationally, people are dropping to the ground (in airports, schools, wherever) and striking the pose that’s an Internet sensation.
“Who would’ve thought that getting knocked on your butt and throwing a touchdown would start a phenomenon like that,” Griffin said. “Griffining, or RGIII-ing, or whatever they want to call it . . . I’m not opposed to it. But it’s pretty funny to me.”
Griffin and the Redskins could be laughing at the NFL’s expense for a long time. But to keep the party going, they’ll have to beat the Rams, which would surely add to the fun for their fans.
For Jason Reid’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.