Robert Griffin III nears NFL debut, and sense of anticipation builds

September 5, 2012

The buildup has been considerable. Now, finally, the time has just about arrived for Robert Griffin III to begin trying to deliver on all that promise.

The rookie quarterback plays in his first real NFL game Sunday in New Orleans, a place he calls his true home town, when the Washington Redskins open the regular season against the Saints at the Superdome. Griffin said Wednesday that the sense of anticipation is building for him.

“I didn’t think I would, but I do feel different. . . . It’s real,” Griffin said. “It’s not that guys weren’t out here working hard or anything like that. But I think everyone is working knowing that stuff counts. This game is going to count and hopefully we can go out and get the victory.”

Even Griffin’s rival, Saints quarterback Drew Brees, is anticipating Griffin’s debut.

“You figure it’s only a matter of time before he takes this league by storm,” Brees said in a conference call Wednesday with Washington area reporters. “I just hope it doesn’t happen on Sunday.”

Griffin stayed late on the practice field Wednesday at Redskins Park throwing passes to wide receiver Pierre Garcon, who is a newcomer to the team as well and has become something of a go-to receiver for the rookie. Griffin long ago began studying the tendencies of the New Orleans defense and its coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who was head coach of the St. Louis Rams last season.

Griffin and other Redskins starters sat out the last of the team’s four preseason games last week. So by the time he plays Sunday, Griffin will have gone a little more than two weeks since playing in any kind of contest.

Griffin provided a few glimpses of what he can do during his three preseason appearances. But the sample size was small. Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan gave Griffin the same preseason playing time that he traditionally allots his starting quarterback, choosing not to increase Griffin’s time on the field during exhibition games just because he is a rookie. As a result, Griffin threw only 31 passes during the preseason, completing 20 for 193 yards and two touchdowns. He didn’t throw an interception.

His strong arm was on display at times. So, too, were his bursts of dazzling speed and impressive improvisational skills. Teammates said he had command of the huddle and a firm grasp of the offense.

But now the stakes are higher and the game will become faster around him. Coaches are in full game-planning mode after taking care during the preseason not to show too much to future opponents. Griffin has said he knows that Spagnuolo will do everything he can Sunday to try to confuse a rookie quarterback playing his first game.

Griffin said he will have 30 to 50 family members inside the Superdome for the game — although he will be paying for only seven of them, he said. Both his parents are from New Orleans. He has attended Saints games in the past, he said, and is pleased to play his first game in a city that means so much to his family.

“I love it,” Griffin said. “I think it’ll be great. My whole family is from there. . . . Even though it’ll be a lot of boos, I’ll get a few cheers from a few sections.”

Griffin said he’s been told by Redskins coaches to keep his mind clear and has been advised by veteran NFL quarterbacks not to try to do too much in his debut game. He said he will do all he can to keep his nerves under control.

“Everybody gets nervous,” Griffin said. “Everyone gets antsy, anxious, any word you want to use to put on that. But it happens. But you do try to stay calm, and I have to stay calm. I can’t go in there and be stumbling over my words or too excited in the huddle with those guys.”

Shanahan said Wednesday that any rookie in his first game had “better feel a little bit antsy” but he doesn’t want Griffin to feel too much of a burden. “It’s pressure on everybody. . . . We know we have to play well as a group. But it’s not Robert. It’s the whole offense,” Shanahan said.

Sunday also is the beginning of an era for the Redskins. All Griffin is being asked to do is turn around the sagging fortunes of a once-proud franchise that has gone two decades since its last Super Bowl triumph and has totaled only 11 wins in Shanahan’s two seasons.

He isn’t being asked to win single-handedly. But questions remain about the supporting cast around him, from a remade receiver corps to an offensive line that was patched together during an injury-filled preseason to a running back mix without a clear-cut starter. Shanahan revealed Wednesday that the team’s suspect secondary had lost starting safety Brandon Meriweather to a knee injury for two to four weeks.

Griffin’s instant celebrity doesn’t appear to have turned off his teammates, who seem to genuinely like him and realize the hopes that the organization has pinned to him. Griffin signed his first NFL contract and arrived at training camp in time for the opening practice. Veterans have praised his work and study habits.

So the Redskins already have plenty to like about Griffin. But the real tests are about to commence.

“We’ve got no choice but to be ready,” Garcon said Wednesday as he walked off the field after his late throwing session with Griffin. “It’s coming up. So we’ll find out on Sunday.”

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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