Robert Griffin III inspires Redskins to believe

The Redskins 17-16 win over the New York Giants puts the team in a tie for second place with the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East, but they need to maintain a balance on offense in order to make the playoffs. (Mike Jones and Jayne Orenstein/The Washington Post)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist December 4, 2012

Robert Griffin III gets credit for everything except the ability of geese to migrate in winter. Now, he’s going to get credit for one more virtue. In big games on big stages, Griffin inspires his teammates to play up to the level of their hopes, not down to the depths of their fears.

Just three games ago, Griffin had a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating in a rout of the Eagles. Then he passed for four touchdowns on Thanksgiving Day in Dallas. Now, he’s completed his three-game sweep of the NFC East with a win head-to-head over Eli Manning and the Super Bowl champion Giants. After a dead-even, all-night battle with New York, Griffin pulled out a fourth-quarter come-from-behind victory, 17-16, with an eight-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon with 11 minutes 31 seconds left to play.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Griffin has the aura of victory. That inspires. That elevates. And, as the Redskins rebuild their franchise, that changes every aspect of their future.

Or, as the loudest crowd at FedEx Field in years, a total of 80,246, put it so pithily with their victory chant: “RGIII, RGIII, RGIII.” You do it three times, of course, then pause, then start again.

Like so many of the supremely gifted, RGIII also has an extra and almost undeserved quality: He even seems a little lucky, too.

In the first quarter, Griffin made his only real mistake of the game, a fumble after a 12-yard run. The ball bounced directly to wide receiver Josh Morgan, who picked it up in stride and wove his way into the end zone to complete a 28-yard touchdown.

Griffin has done so many amazing things that the same thought jumped into thousands of minds: Did he do that on purpose? That’s impossible.

It was just a lucky fumble. But it will soon become one more piece of Griffin lore. “Some people thought he fumbled that ball” to Morgan, Coach Mike Shanahan said later. “Robert has worked on that during the week.”

A room full of reporters sat silent, taken in or, maybe, just believing anything if the protagonist was Griffin.

“Sometimes you’ve got to get lucky,” Shanahan said to help the humorless.

Griffin is just a rookie who thinks that beating the New York Giants is merely a good reason to have a little fun. “We didn’t work on that [fumble] play in practice,” he said. “We wanted to save it for the game.”

Pressed on his fraudulent miracle play, Griffin deadpanned, “It was a pitch to Josh and I’m going to stay with that story.” Then, as he finished his interview, RGIII threw his last pass of the night: “Remember, that was a pitch to Josh.”

At 6-6 the Redskins’ playoff hopes, presumed near death until Griffin rallied the team with a get-on-my-back speech during the team’s bye week, are now more than realistic. With Griffin, the Redskins are now the hot team, the momentum pick. And they’re just one game behind the Giants in the NFC East and one game behind Seattle for the second wild card.

Even if the Giants’ final fourth-quarter drive had not ended in a punt, even if Griffin and the Redskins had not run out the clock for victory, the whole feeling of this game — the Redskins’ ability to make few mistakes in a nerve-racking game, then overcome the ones that they did make — marks this as a turning point in team composure. The Redskins committed only four penalties. Remember when such a must-win game might have brought an avalanche of 14 flags?

In this game, it became clear that Griffin also identified his two primary offensive running mates. As usual, rookie Alfred Morris, with 124 yards on 22 carries, ran like the Giants had insulted everyone he’d ever known. He’s now the Redskins’ all-time rookie rushing leader. He blew through both 1,000 and 1,100 yards on the same night, ending with 1,106.

Garcon, with his second straight 100-yard game, showed that he’s recovered from his foot injury and can provide the speedy receiver the Redskins have lacked for eons.

For 20 years, the Redskins have tended not to play up to reasonable expectations — their own or their fans’ — in many of the games that mattered most. There were exceptions. But few veteran Redskins or long-enduring fans have failed to note the pattern of “being flat” on big stages, including 10 straight losses at home on Monday night.

Redskin team leaders and coaches bemoaned the mystery of “not showing up,” being too tight or too nervous, making too many penalties or simple mental blunders. Any pattern over many years has more than one cause. But one constant through those years was the absence of an inspiring quarterback. The bigger the game, the more a team responds to a special player at the most important position in any team sport.

Everyone identifies this truth in conference championship or Super Bowl games. Of course, Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning gives his team more poise, more confidence that it can come from behind and, perhaps most important of all, an unconscious desire to play up to the level — to be worthy of — their leader.

Now, the Redskins finally have such a quarterback. On Monday night, Griffin made his usual breathtaking signature play, a 46-yard option run. His 72 yards on only five carries gave the Redskins’ No. 1-ranked rushing game 208 yards for the night and 456 yards on the ground in two games against New York. Any NFL team that gets stomped that seriously on the ground, even the Giants, has Redskins matchup problems in its future.

Now, the Redskins have gone into Dallas on Thanksgiving Day, then played the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants 11 days later in consecutive high-visibility games on national TV. Those were occasions that, for so long, brought out less than the best in the Redskins.

This was a game when, in other years, the Redskins might have been blown out. The Washington pass rush was nonexistent. Eli Manning could have rolled up his sleeve and had his annual flu shot while he stood in the pocket.

With so little resistance, Manning led the Giants to a 13-10 lead at half and a slim 16-10 margin early in the fourth quarter. Yet Griffin came back and completed an 86-yard scoring drive with a sprint out flood pattern to his right and the final scoring pass to a wide open Garcon.

The Giants began a drive with 6:06 to play but were forced to punt with 3:51 to play. That’s when the Redskins had their last harrowing gasp. Linebacker Bryan Kehl ran into the Giants’ punter, but grabbed him and held him upright before he could completely flop to the ground. The official correctly called a five-yard penalty, not a 15-yard “roughing” penalty that would have given the Giants an automatic first down. By that narrow margin, the Redskins got the ball back, and, naturally, Griffin completed a final clock-killing drive with a 17-yard pass to Garcon.

The completion iced the victory and left RGIII at 13 for 21 for 163 yards and no interceptions. In his three game NFC East blitz, he’s thrown nine touchdown passes and only one interception. Against the Giants, he had a merely good statistical game (for him) yet beat the defending Super Bowl champions on national TV in a comeback thriller.

In that, as in so much more for the last three games, Griffin was . . . you know the word, though it hasn’t been applied to a Washington quarterback for decades — inspiring.

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/
boswell
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