NEW ORLEANS – He wouldn’t let go of the ball. He juked around reporters, slipped through holes in the tangle of bodies inside the Washington Redskins’ victorious locker room, followed the lead blocks of the team official assigned to guide him through the bowels of the Superdome from one interview to the next.
Someone offered to hold the ball for him, the official Wilson football tucked under his arm, but he smiled and said, “I got it.”
Robert Griffin III did his fifth and final interview on the floor of the old stadium, the lights turned down low, the place empty and silent, the scoreboard over his left shoulder still glowing with the stunning final score: Redskins 40, Saints 32. Griffin answered the final questions with a smile on his face, twirling in his hands the game ball commemorating his first NFL touchdown.
“It was definitely a storybook ending for my first game,” he said.
There are all sorts of ways you could quantify what Griffin, 22, accomplished Sunday afternoon in his NFL debut, from the cold statistics that measure a quarterback — his 19 completions in 26 attempts, his 320 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, his 139.9 passer rating – to the historical context: No quarterback in history had ever thrown for 300 or more yards in winning his NFL debut.
But all you really had to do to understand Sunday’s import was trust your eyes, because what your eyes told you was this: The Redskins simply have not witnessed anything like this game in a long, long time, and have never witnessed anyone like Griffin – fast and agile and smart, with an arm like a rocket-launcher -- in roughly forever.
If Washington was already gripped by RGIII fever, the anticipation building all summer for the debut of the most heavily hyped rookie quarterback in franchise history, what will become of the region now – after Griffin led the Redskins to a season-opening upset victory that felt like the start of some new era?
Playing for the first time in his ancestral hometown – where both his parents were born and raised, where he spent many a Christmas and where he lived for 14 months as a child – Griffin carved up the Saints’ defense with a combination of crisp passes and crafty runs. He outplayed a six-time Pro Bowl quarterback, New Orleans’s Drew Brees, who last year set an all-time NFL record for passing yards.
After the game, Brees waited near midfield as Redskins officials retrieved Griffin from the Washington sideline, where he was standing on the bench pointing and smiling at the hundreds of Redskins fans gathered near the railing. When Griffin finally made his way to Brees’s side, the veteran grabbed him around the neck and whispered into his ear.
“He told me he was proud of me,” Griffin said later. “That’s big of him to say that after they’d just lost the game.”
It was simply not a performance, or a victory, that one could envision being authored by Rex Grossman or John Beck – the two quarterbacks who shared the Redskins’ duties in 2011, neither of whom wore an NFL uniform for Week 1. It was not something an aging Donovan McNabb could have done in 2010.
“He’s a sight for sore eyes,” veteran linebacker London Fletcher told reporters, speaking for everyone who has witnessed the Redskins’ parade of mediocrity at quarterback these last however-many years.
On its surface, Griffin’s assignment in Week 1 was the toughest imaginable for an NFL debut: Go on the road, to one of the loudest, most intimidating environments in the league, to face a team that had won 13 games in 2011. In recent weeks, the Redskins’ coaches had begun lobbying subtly for a lowering of expectations for Griffin, pointing out the historical struggles of great quarterbacks like Peyton Manning, whose team went 3-13 as a rookie, or Troy Aikman, who went 0-11.
Rookie quarterbacks are supposed to be jittery, quick-triggered and mistake-prone. Indianapolis’s Andrew Luck, the No. 1 pick of this year’s draft (Griffin was No. 2), threw three interceptions Sunday in his debut, a 20-point loss to Chicago. Miami’s Ryan Tannehill and Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden, both first-round picks, combined for seven interceptions in their debuts Sunday.
But Griffin looked assured and confident the minute he strode onto the Superdome floor before the game. He paced the sideline, bobbing his head to the rock music playing over the loudspeakers. In the final minutes before the opening kickoff, he seemed to make a point of checking in with every teammate with some form of greeting: fist-bumps, soul-shakes, chest-taps, back-slaps, bro-hugs.
“My mind was really clear going into this game,” Griffin said. “… The one thing I try to do is not stress about anything or to go out and try to prove anything to anyone.”
Griffin led the Redskins to scores on each of their first four drives, including an 88-yard touchdown strike to receiver Pierre Garcon that Griffin watched unfold from the Superdome floor, having been knocked down by a vicious hit from Saints safety Malcom Jenkins. As Garcon broke free near midfield and won a sprint to the end zone, Griffin raised both index fingers to the sky.
And what about the ball? It made its way to the Redskins’ bench, where it was placed in safekeeping until after the game – whereupon it was returned to the man who had sent it into the sky, the man who would still be cradling it 45 minutes later, in the bowels of the Superdome.
Griffin had his trophy, the Redskins had their victory, and at last long Washington, by all appearances, had a quarterback in whom it was safe to believe.
Game summary: Redskins 40, Saints 32
Analysis: Redskins let Griffin be Griffin
Grading RGIII: How did he do?