Robert Griffin III hasn’t quote acheived instant greatness, but he’s close

Thomas Boswell
Columnist September 15, 2012

Certain players at specific positions in particular sports can announce their stardom in just one game. In rare cases, it only takes an instant to spot the combination of gifts that take us past “anything is possible” all the way to “greatness is almost inevitable.”

We can never know who’ll be injured, play on rotten teams or have a destructive private life. But, as long as life doesn’t stop ’em, we know nothing else will. For example, the day Wilt Chamberlain arrived in the NBA, all scoring records died.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

After just one game, Robert Griffin III hovers on the edge of that category, but does not achieve it yet. The Redskins’ rookie quarterback remains on the second tier of young athletes for whom we must wait a little longer, though maybe no more than a few months, to know where he stands.

Griffin plays a position in a sport that does not allow instant certainty but teases and delights us with the probability that we’re watching history. No quarterback answers all questions in a day, though RGIII came closer last Sunday than anyone I’ve ever seen.

Anticipation and imagination both sold Griffin short. Sonny Jurgensen called his debut the best he’d ever seen by an NFL quarterback. John Madden called him the NFL’s best player in Week 1. Steve Mariucci called him the most athletic quarterback ever. My Monday a.m. impression (blush) was that Griffin would become the most important Redskins player since Sammy Baugh. That may sound grander than it is. The Redskins’ best teams rank higher than their best stars, with Larry Brown, Joe Theismann and kicker Mark Moseley their only MVPs. Jurgensen’s own decade may be the high bar to leap.

Who are the superstars on Day One? As soon as Shaquille O’Neal hit the NBA, you knew his agile-giant talent would translate. Nobody was going to stop his 7 feet 1 inches and 325 pounds. The first day Charles Barkley ever saw Shaq, he said to me, “Come over here. You have to see this. Me standing next to him is like you standing next to me.”

The first time the big-league world saw Stephen Strasburg strike out 14 Pirates in his debut, no one said, “Pittsburgh’s a lousy team.” The universal shout was, “Holy hell!” The Strasburg verdict was actually delivered when Ivan Rodriguez caught him in spring training and told coach Steve McCatty he most resembled “Nolan.” As in Ryan.

Griffin may end up ranked as high or higher. But we’re not allowed to know quite yet. Like Bryce Harper at 19, or Alex Ovechkin as a 105-point 20-year-old NHL rookie, we have to watch Griffin and the NFL cross-examine each other. Defenses learn to read quarterback tendencies the way pitchers get a book on hitters or hockey goalies study the shooting patterns of scorers.

The NFL probably isn’t going to have any better luck scrambling Griffin’s wires than the NHL had with two-time MVP Ovechkin or MLB is having now with a hot Harper. (Okay, I confess. I doubted D.C. would ever have four stars as remarkable as Griffin, Strasburg, Ovechkin and Harper to compare to each other. It’s our turn to show off.)

If you watch the Redskins’ 40-32 win over the Saints enough times, you’ll eventually detect traces of Griffin’s mortality. He fumbled but recovered and tripped over a back’s foot for a loss. In the preseason, he didn’t put enough arc on a long pass. He was brave in the face of contact right up to, and maybe a bit beyond, the usual definitions of sanity.

But the biggest question for all rookies, especially quarterbacks, is: Can he adjust to the speed of the NFL? That is speed in all its forms, like defensive linemen who move as quickly as college linebackers to constantly shifting defensive alignments.

Griffin not only answered the question, he reversed it. How will the NFL adjust to the speed of RGIII — speed in all its football forms? Not just sprinting speed, though Griffin as fast as anybody who ever played the position. The quickness of all his movements will torment defense. His every gesture, his footwork, his ability to reset the pocket a few yards left or right (and reset it more than once), the speed of his fakes and the quickness of his option reads, the suddenness of his flanker screens all set him apart.

On top of that, consider the speed of his passes. They streak through the smallest of windows. His mind seems just as fast, processing what he sees at the scrimmage line. His eyes sweep quickly to multiple receivers. Faced with a seven-man blitz, he threw a quick touchdown strike over the middle. As he was hit by a safety blitz, he flicked a bullet off his back foot that ended up as an 88-yard scoring pass. On fourth and inches, he threw deep into one-on-one coverage and, like a vet, drew a 30-yard penalty to the 1-yard line that was virtually as good as another touchdown completion.

A monster game from a rookie pocket passer can be deceiving. Does he have other tricks? Griffin seems to have an entire bag full. He took the snap under center on the 88-yard score, often worked from an empty backfield and loved the shotgun which, for him, functions almost like a ‘30’s single-wing tailback. He may sweep, counter with a spinner or run an option with a pitchout. He ran by design and by necessity. Most impressive, with 2 minutes 25 seconds to play, up only eight points, he fired a dagger of a second-and-14 completion over the middle for a clock killing first down. The pass caught Logan Paulsen.

When Roger Staubach first came into the NFL, coaches said he was so versatile, “He can run any play you can diagram. Plus some others that he invents.” Few coaches are better known for their diagrams than the Shanahans. There won’t be an unmarked scrap of paper in Ashburn by midseason. What they don’t concoct, Griffin may improvise.

Spectacular debuts can be a snare. On Sunday, Griffin will not only face the St. Louis defense but his own highlights and statistics from Week 1. Griffin will hardly find that novel. He’s been measured against himself, and pretty much no one else, his whole life.

In all of Washington sports history there have only been a handful of debuts as anticipated as Griffin’s. Of those, only a quarterback or a pitcher can hold the outcome of the contest so firmly in his hands. Griffin, because his debut was on the road, as a heavy underdog, against Drew Brees in a thunderous Superdome, now stands alone at the top.

After such a first impression, RGIII has only himself to blame. There’s just one thing left to say: Encore.

For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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