Robert Griffin’s first game guarantees absolutely nothing, but it’s not a bad start

September 10, 2012

One day after the dazzling debut of Washington Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III in a season-opening triumph at New Orleans, the superlatives continued to pour in. Griffin’s performance was a leading topic of conversation around town and across the NFL, and there was a convincing case to be made that he’d played the best opening game ever by a rookie quarterback.

The tougher issue was putting it all in the proper perspective. What do Griffin’s exploits in a single, impressive 40-32 victory over the Saints mean for the future — for the pace of his development and the Redskins’ prospects of quickly becoming a winning team?

Cam Newton’s back-to-back 400-yard passing performances at the start of last season, for instance, were a signal that he was on his way to a record-setting rookie year, but not a precursor to a successful season by his team. The Carolina Panthers went 6-10 with Newton as their quarterback.

But for Monday, at least, most were heaping praise on Griffin and what he had accomplished in the Superdome on Sunday.

“It was like the second coming of Cam Newton’s first game last year,” former Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert said. “To have that kind of game and be that calm in a really hostile environment like that, that was really impressive. I’ve seen a lot of veteran quarterbacks come into the Superdome and not handle things anywhere close to as well as that.”

Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon added: “I thought because of where the game was played and because of the circumstances with the Saints and the [bounty] suspensions and all of the emotions associated with that, it was one of the more impressive performances that I saw all weekend by any quarterback, rookie or veteran, and maybe the most impressive performance of all.”

Griffin became the first quarterback ever with 300 or more passing yards, two or more passing touchdowns and no interceptions in his NFL debut, according to the NFL. Griffin and the Indianapolis Colts’ Andrew Luck, who threw for 309 yards Sunday, joined Newton and former Colts quarterback Peyton Manning as the only rookie quarterbacks ever with 300 or more passing yards in a season opener.

Unlike Luck, Newton and Manning, Griffin led his team to a win. According to the league, Griffin and John Elway are the only rookie quarterbacks since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger to start and win a season opener on the road against a team that was unbeaten at home the previous season.

But when Elway’s Denver Broncos won at Pittsburgh in 1983, it was despite Elway’s performance rather than because of it. Elway completed one of eight passes for 14 yards, and Steve DeBerg came on to throw the winning touchdown pass. On Sunday, the Redskins won in large part because of Griffin, who connected on 19 of 26 passes for 320 yards and two touchdowns. His 88-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Pierre Garcon tied for the second-longest ever by a quarterback in his NFL debut, according to the league.

“He took the throws that were open,” Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins said Sunday. “And once you buy time, things open up all across the field. He did a good job of finding those holes once he extended the play . . . He made good reads and threw it across the middle right on time. He didn’t throw late.”

Griffin used his mobility to gain 42 rushing yards on 10 carries, and move outside the pocket, where he created passing lanes to open receivers. Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan and his son, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, helped Griffin with a game plan that included some screen passes early in the game and some running plays for Griffin to keep the New Orleans defense guessing.

“I thought the coaches for the Redskins did a great job,” Hebert, now a broadcaster in New Orleans, said Monday. “They had a great game plan to help him out. You expect a rookie quarterback to throw a few interceptions at some point and give the other team a chance, and that never happened. The Saints dropped one interception but, for the most part, he didn’t give them any chances.”

Newton threw for 422 yards in the Panthers’ season-opening loss at Arizona last year. He followed that with a 432-yard passing performance in a Week 2 defeat at home to the Green Bay Packers. That put Newton on his way to breaking Manning’s NFL record for passing yards by a rookie.

But it can be hazardous to read too much into the first few starts by a rookie quarterback. Manning lost his first two starts for the Colts in 1998, totaling 490 passing yards but throwing six interceptions. Ryan Leaf, the quarterback drafted immediately after Manning that year, won his first two starts for the San Diego Chargers, with a total of 371 passing yards but only two interceptions.

Manning went on to become the only four-time most valuable player in league history. Leaf was out of the NFL after four years and is considered one of the biggest quarterback busts in league history.

The league will adjust to Griffin. And he will have to adjust to those adjustments.

“It’s easier to game plan [defensively] as you get down the season, once you have five or six games you can break down and see what the tendencies are,” Jenkins said. “The first game is always hard to kind of anticipate. So really you come in with just kind of a base plan and you have to adjust midway through.”

Griffin became the first rookie quarterback to start a season opener for the Redskins during the Super Bowl era. He and tailback Alfred Morris became the first rookies to start at quarterback and running back for the Redskins in any game during the Super Bowl era. So it would seem that the future could be brighter for the Redskins.

But there are ups and downs, stops and starts, for any NFL quarterback. Sunday’s successes in New Orleans guarantee nothing for Sunday’s game in St. Louis and beyond.

“If he goes out there next week and the Redskins go out there next week and lay an egg, people will still be mad about it,” Hebert said. “Everyone in the NFL tends to forget about what happened the last game once you play the next game. So they have to build on this. But to me, the Redskins will always have a good chance as long as they have RGIII back there.”

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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