Difference Maker, On and Off Field

When Cornelius Griffin returned from injury, the Redskins won their last five games of the regular season, including a victory over Philadelphia in their finale.
When Cornelius Griffin returned from injury, the Redskins won their last five games of the regular season, including a victory over Philadelphia in their finale. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 14, 2006

Cornelius Griffin spoke quietly into his cell phone the other day, his wife, Kimberly, on the opposite end of the line. "I'm at work, baby," he said. "I'll be home in three or four hours. Got to watch some film. Got to finish the work."

He drew the blue phone from his ear, pushed a button to hang up, and tucked it onto a shelf in his locker at Redskins Park. He pulled his hand back, but his gaze turned to the three photos he has taped up on the left side of his locker, the pictures of his baby girl Mikalah, just seven months old. Mikalah in a crib, a newborn. Mikalah wearing a smart, checked hat. Mikalah smiling, making her daddy smile right back at her.

"That's my girl," the Washington Redskins defensive tackle said. "That's who I have to bring up right. And I know I can, because I know how I was brought up."

Work and family, family and work. When Griffin and the Redskins take the field today in Seattle to face the Seahawks in the NFC playoffs, Griffin will be an embodiment of those forces, of work and family, because that is what shaped him from the days he ran across the Little League diamonds in tiny Brundidge, Ala., the kid who was always bigger than the others. He is 29 now. He stands 6 feet 3. He weighs 300 pounds.

He is one of the Redskins' most important defensive players, teammates and coaches say, and his presence in the middle of Washington's defense could go a long way toward determining the outcome of today's game, because Redskins' opponents gain 90 fewer yards per game when Griffin is on the field and healthy, getting that push through the opponents' line.

"Just the physical presence he brings makes a huge difference," said Gregg Williams, the Redskins' assistant head coach-defense.

Griffin acknowledges all that, relishes it. But as he said, "No one knows what you go through." And it's possible, even as the Redskins preach togetherness and commitment as they try to win their seventh straight game, that very few of the men who see Griffin at his locker, who see him on the field, who see the way he looks at those pictures of Mikalah -- very few of them know what he went through that June night in Brundidge, when he came home from church and his daddy was dead.

Football? "What's football?" Griffin said.

Sure, his teammates know about his other struggles, his injuries, because they watched them happen and then saw the impact on Washington's defense. Two plays into the Redskins' worst game of the year, a 36-0 loss to the New York Giants on Oct. 30, Griffin sustained a painful injury to his hip flexor. He sat out the rest of the Giants game. He didn't play the next three weeks, not in a win over Philadelphia, not in narrow losses to Tampa Bay and Oakland. He barely played the next week, a crushing overtime loss to San Diego when the Chargers gained 397 yards, the most the Redskins allowed all year.

"It wasn't the same without him in there," linebacker Lemar Marshall said. "Cornelius is a crafty veteran. He's going to get out there and do things because he knows the tricks of the trade. After playing with him for two years, you get a feel for what he's going to do, and when someone else is in there, maybe they're not as quick or not as strong, and you react different, and it affects the whole defense."

The statistics argue exactly that. Maybe it's just coincidence. Maybe Griffin's absence came in the midst of a defensive swoon and wasn't, in fact, a primary cause. But the numbers are stark: In the 12 games, playoff and regular season, in which Griffin has played more than sparingly, the Redskins allowed an average of 267.9 yards. In the five games in which he barely appeared or did not play, they gave up an average of 359 yards.

Can one man in 11 -- and, mind you, Griffin isn't a playmaking linebacker or a shut-down cornerback -- make such a difference? Yes, said Williams.


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