Robert Griffin III isn’t a sure thing, but his foundation is solid

Sally Jenkins
Columnist May 4, 2012

Somewhere under all the swamping analysis and assessment is a rookie quarterback reporting to his first minicamp. We don’t know much yet about Robert Griffin III, and we haven’t left any room for uncertainty, either. He is either the next It Boy, or all those draft picks the Washington Redskins gave away for him will be just another senseless looting. Right? But let’s restore some sense, by considering what we do know.

One thing we know about RGIII is that he’s not a bore. Another thing we know is that he’s got a showy intelligence and answers questions like he’s checking off boxes on a standardized test. We know that physically he looks the part of the Next Great. But, after meeting him on draft night, we also know he’s not quite as tall as listed: No way he’s 6 feet 3 unless you measure him in cleats standing on a hardwood floor. However, we’re pleased to report that after shaking his hand, we know it’s plenty big enough to grip a football in the rain.

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

We know he gives the impression of being pretty pleased with himself, and why shouldn’t he be? He comes on like a man of the world who knows what he’s in for, who joins the Redskins with a sense of the bull’s-eye on his back.

“If we’re successful in Washington, it’s not just me,” Griffin said on draft night. “If we’re not successful in Washington, it is just me.”

But we also know RGIII can’t fully understand the volatile condition of Redskins fans, their wan and haggard state after watching just two winning seasons in the past 10 years, and a bum-of-the-month club under center. On the night of the draft, Andy Curley paused on the art deco staircase of Radio City Music Hall wearing a replica Redskins jersey.

There were a lot of outrageous fan getups in the auditorium that night: a Broncos fan wearing a rocking horse on his head, a character in a red hood with a drifting red cape who called himself Buffalo Bills Superfan. But Curley’s outfit was a foot-traffic stopper because, unlike everybody else’s, his wasn’t a tribute to his hometown team; it was an expression of rotten-vegetable discontent. Stitched on the back of his jersey was the name McNabb, followed by a list of other names lettered in masking type. “Grossman, J Beck, J Campbell, M Brunell, T Collins, P Ramsey, D Wuerffel.”

“This is what I grew up with,” he said. “This is my nightmare, right here.

“All the other fans pick on me. Every Sunday I have to hide. They all tell me: ‘The Redskins don’t do anything from September to January. Their real season is from January to September.’ ”

Atop all the names he had stenciled, “RGIII?”

Note the question mark.

We know that RGIII won a Heisman Trophy — and we know that means exactly nothing because so did Chris Weinke, Matt Leinart, Jason White, Eric Crouch, Carson Palmer and Troy Smith. We know from highlights that he has an electric arm and can throw the ball deep with a flicky, wristy ease, but we also know he has never run a pro-style offense. We know that it’s one thing to handle pressure in Waco, Tex., another in the nation’s capital with fickle and easily disenchanted owner Daniel Snyder “relying” on you, while eyeing Kirk Cousins’s name on the roster.

Here is something else we know: Even future Hall of Famers can have lousy debuts as rookie quarterbacks. Peyton Manning threw 11 interceptions in his first four games and went 3-13 in his rookie season with the Colts in 1998. John Elway threw 14 interceptions to just seven touchdowns as a rookie with the Broncos in 1983. Troy Aikman went 0-11 as a rookie starter for the Cowboys, throwing twice as many interceptions (18) as touchdowns (nine). RGIII himself knows this.

“A lot of rookies have terrible years,” Griffin pointed out. “I don’t want to be that guy.”

There is one thing we know about Griffin that has genuine substance, one fact that is not just a suggestive projection. We know his old man. In fact we know more about Griffin’s father, Robert Griffin Jr., than we know about the son. We know the elder Griffin is a man of drive who worked his way from enlistee to sergeant in the U.S. Army and served in the Gulf War, and though he’s retired he wears his haircut high and tight and favors plain brown suits. We know he similarly drives his son to succeed, determined to keep his eyes in front and his head straight.

We know the elder Griffin doesn’t intend to see the kid hijacked by bright lights, nor by the jingle of coins, and that he viewed the whole Radio City Music Hall draft extravaganza with a suspicious eye, as if to say, “How ya’ gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?”

We know that on the night before the draft, when RGIII stayed out on the town until midnight, the elder Griffin was not pleased, though the kid protested that he never drank a thing.

“I was a little vexed,” the father said. He told his son, “That cannot be part of your life.”

We know, too, that the elder Griffin is not an easy man to satisfy. Every time his son thinks he’s about to finish a race, break the tape, the elder Griffin moves it farther back.

“He’s learning, and he’s moving,” he said. “This is just one more step, another thing he has to mature through. We taught him to master. When we taught him a thing, we taught him to master it.”

We know that nothing is sure when it comes to rookie quarterbacks in the NFL, that watching them is like watching an untested booster rocket. Stage 1 is the NFL draft, and Stage 2 is this weekend’s rookie minicamp. Will the payload make it into space, or will it explode and trail to the ground? We can only guess, and hope. But we know that if the son listens to the father, if he continues to follow his direction and the sound of his voice, he has a chance to be all right.

“People say being drafted can change who you are,” RGIII said. “But I think it’s the lifestyle that gets guys. It’s how smart you can be within everything that’s going on.”

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