Robert Griffin III’s poise in NFL debut transcends even his performance on the field

Mike Wise
Columnist September 9, 2012

He forgot his cellphone in Virginia, his worry in West Texas and the fact that he was just 22 sometime before kickoff. No distraction or pressure amid the chaos and the sound could rattle Robert Griffin III on Sunday — because he never misplaced his cool, the unceasing composure that is already the greatest asset of the Washington Redskins’ prized rookie.

“My biggest thing this week was just to keep my mind clear,” Griffin said as he strode coolly toward the bus that would take the Redskins to the plane, and finally home to an absolutely wowed Washington.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

“I knew if I could just take all the worries out of my mind, I could just play, have fun and ball out.”

Do you get the feeling that if Griffin weren’t busy leading his football team to the upset of the NFL’s opening weekend he would probably be leading a meditation retreat — or leading all of us in the serenity prayer?

The kid was so good, playing a shell game with the football — never letting the New Orleans Saints know when or whether he had it in his hands. He rolled out and fired precise ropes to his receivers, made monster play after monster play. His rookie debut was surreal, all right.

But the big takeaway is that a 22-year-old could be this serene.

Take the end of this stunning 40-32 Redskins victory. Washington had already scored four touchdowns and had dropped more points than the team had scored in almost seven years on a stunned Superdome. Just 2 minutes 25 seconds remained and the Saints had crept within a touchdown and a two-point conversion for the second time in the fourth quarter.

One last time, here came the pressure. One last time, here came the noise and belief from the crowd.

And Griffin coolly crushed their hope.

Again.

Walking nonchalantly behind center, facing second and 13, he dropped back and found Logan Paulsen across the middle for the most crucial of the Redskins’ 22 first downs.

Griffin was so in control, so poised amid the outsize expectations for his rookie debut. His ability to slow the game and the moment was better than all the highlight throws and naked-bootleg runs combined.

The numbers and records will rightly be talked about; they have to be. But it’s the calm during the storm that defined Griffin best Sunday in what he couldn’t help but call a “storybook” beginning to his NFC career.

“The poise that he played with and some of the throws that he made . . . ” Coach Mike Shanahan said, catching his breath afterward. “Just to execute the offense in this environment; you can’t hear the snap count.”

Only one quarterback playing his first NFL game — Fran Tarkenton in 1961 — ever had a better passer rating (139.9). No Redskins quarterback playing in a non-strike season had hooked up with a receiver for a touchdown as long as 88 yards since, heck, Billy Kilmer in 1975.

“Best I’ve ever seen a quarterback play in his first game,” Sonny Jurgensen said, nodding, in the entrance to the visiting locker room afterward.

Meanwhile, Griffin walked around with his uniform still on, like a kid in Little League who didn’t want to take it off after he hit his first home run. He held a football at the dais of his first post-game NFL news conference, finally acknowledging it was the same ball he threw across the middle to Pierre Garcon, an 88-yard touchdown that was the first of his career.

Even then, there was no perceptible excitement beyond a great win to open the season. Yes, this was his most memorable moment to date in football. Of course it was great to have family see it in the stands.

But the utter jubilation he created for the people around him never came through from his impenetrable zone. The Griffin Zone – RGFree.

“The one thing I try to do is not stress about anything or to go out and prove anything to anyone,” he said after outplaying Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who will one day go to the Hall of Fame. “I just go play and have fun; this is a game that I have played for a long time.”

Again, he added, “My mind was really clear going into this game.”

This is what walking into the World Series of Poker for the first time must be like. No one knows your tells, your strategy or your style. No one knows anything about you other than what they’ve seen and heard about you in smaller games.

The first drive was critical, geared toward giving Griffin confidence and comfort in the pocket. Quick screens. Sleight-of-hand option plays, so it was hard for the camera, let alone the Saints, to follow the football.

They took the bubble wrap off after that. Garcon got free running a crossing pattern, slipped underneath and then outside. Eighty-eight yards. Gone. Griffin’s first touchdown of his NFL career was the longest Washington pass play from scrimmage in nearly 40 years.

His virtuoso performance wasn’t just about a new era in Washington; it transcended football. Griffin’s numbers and poise at least measured up and sometimes blew by some of the great rookie debuts in modern sports history. It was Stephen Strasburg fanning 14 Pirates in June of 2010 at Nationals Park; it was LeBron James’s scintillating 25 points and nine assists against a good Sacramento squad in 2003; it was Tiger Woods’s hole in one in the final round of his first PGA tournament in Milwaukee in 1996; it was Magic embracing Kareem as if he had won the title in 1979, after Kareem’s sky hook beat the Clippers’ in Earvin Johnson’s first NBA game.

The greatest affirmation of all was the quiet, the utter silence in the Superdome.

“Who dat?” many of the Redskins players yelled as they ran toward the locker room afterward. “We dat!”

In the end, Griffin was still on the field, talking to the cameras and the microphones. The general manager, Bruce Allen, hugged him as he left the field. The kid then threw his skullcap into the stands as dozens of Redskins’ fans chanted, “RGIII! RGIII! RGIII!” from the stands above.

No one asked him about the past. No one asked him about the future. It was then you realized the best thing about Griffin is maybe the best thing about many of these newly acquired Redskins: they don’t have a memory of the awful times past.

They are like Griffin — staying in the moment, happily trapped in time, enjoying the brilliance of their new shining light behind center. And Sunday at the Superdome, what a moment it was.

For Mike Wise’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.

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