Robert Griffin III's Fedex Field debut very nearly a comeback for the ages

September 23, 2012

One more minute on the clock. One more timeout in the bank. Just one more weapon on the field to catch his passes, or cover his blind side. One fewer ill-advised, hot-headed, yellow-flagged meltdowns to take the ball out of his hands at the end.

No, Robert Griffin III didn’t finish the job this time. His regular-season home debut for the Washington Redskins will forever be marred by an L, this 38-31 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

But if there was a lasting impression from Griffin’s performance for the 80,060 at FedEx Field on Sunday afternoon, it was that the rookie quarterback very nearly pulled it off — and he might have, if even one thing had been working in his favor, instead of every circumstance going against him in the fourth quarter.

“He did an unbelievable job coming back in the second half,” Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said. “He made some big plays at the end that a lot of people can’t make.”

There was a point late Sunday afternoon — the sun sinking, the clock ticking, the Redskins driving, the ball resting just inside the red zone — when it appeared that Griffin, against all logic and probability, might actually perform a miracle. That he might bring the Redskins back from 14 down in the final seven minutes, just as he had already brought them back from 17 down in the third quarter. That he might send the game into overtime. At that point, he was 19 yards away. There were 29 ticks left on the clock.

The faithful among the sellout crowd — the same ones who had roared when he was introduced before the game, the ones who chanted “R-G-3! R-G-3!” with the same rhythm and intonation as “M-V-P!” at various points throughout the afternoon, the ones who had chosen to stick around rather than head for the exits after the Bengals took a 38-24 lead midway through the fourth quarter — were beginning to believe in the unbelievable.

“It was a great atmosphere. The fans definitely showed up and showed out for us,” Griffin said.

But then came a deflating 15-yard sack, a spiked throw to stop the clock and utter chaos. First a false-start penalty on the Redskins, a flood of players on the field believing the game was over, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the Redskins, and finally, a pitiful prayer of a Hail Mary that dropped unanswered well shy of the end zone. It was over, and the pain of coming so close and falling short may have felt even worse than a 14-point loss in which the Redskins never stood a chance.

“It’s a matter of responding. We came out in the second half and we responded. We were down 38-24, and we responded,” Griffin said. “So now, what are you going to do when you have two straight losses? We’re going to respond, I promise that.”

Two things were clear at the end: One, with Griffin at quarterback, the Redskins may never be totally out of a game. And two, if someone was going to win the game for the Redskins, it was going to have to be Griffin. Football is never a one-man show, but on Sunday it was close.

Consider everything Griffin was missing as he tried to rally the Redskins from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit. His top wide receiver (Pierre Garcon, out for the game). His chief protector (left tackle Trent Williams, out for most of the second half). All three of his timeouts (squandered by poor clock management and an unsuccessful coach’s challenge). His defense, meantime, was giving up yardage and points in huge chunks, unable to stop the Bengals’ offense until the very end. And still, he nearly pulled it off.

After the game, Griffin sat at his locker talking to veteran backup Rex Grossman for a good 10 minutes. He was still in his full uniform, save for his helmet, and his gold pants and the white “10” on his back were stained a deep green — the residue of an afternoon spent largely on his back in the grass.

Finally, Griffin rose gingerly, like an old man, and began removing his uniform and pads, still talking animatedly to Grossman between stages of disrobing.

“He just needed to vent,” Grossman said later.

By one unofficial count, Griffin was knocked to the turf at least 18 times on Sunday. There were sacks, knockdowns in the pocket, hard tackles on designed runs and welcome-to-the-NFL pops on nearly every option play — whether Griffin kept the ball or not. He was slow to get up a few times, but he always got up.

“A lot of teams think if you hit the quarterback enough, eventually he’ll stop coming after you,” Griffin said. “I just want to let everyone know that’s never going to happen. . . . One thing I won’t do personally is quit, or play scared. I’ve never played scared in my life.

“It doesn’t matter how many times they hit me, I’m going to continue get back up. Even if they have to cart me off the field, I’m going to get off that cart and walk away.”

Griffin didn’t need a cart on Sunday. What he needed was one more minute on the clock, a timeout or two, a referee’s call to go his way, someone besides himself who could make a play late in the game. Griffin is a fighter — that much is clear by now.

And what he needed was a fighting chance.

Dave Sheinin has been covering baseball and writing features and enterprise stories for The Washington Post since 1999.
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