When the Washington Redskins signed defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin to a huge free agent contract in March 2004, he literally was speechless. He did not answer questions at his own introductory news conference, kept an amazingly low profile through the offseason and training camp and hid beneath a quiet and reserved veneer.
Privately, he was seething. Griffin knew that other teams mocked the Redskins for investing an $8.3 million signing bonus on a player who had been labeled a bust. Griffin heard it all, tucking the comments away in an internal furnace, and now, following a 2004 season in which he anchored a dominant defensive line, he is finally venting that steam.
"When I signed here, all I ever heard was I was overpaid, that I was an underachiever," Griffin said, still huffing and puffing from a typically intense practice. "I couldn't say that if all that wasn't said that I could have played any harder, but when people say things about you, it always makes you want to prove them wrong. When I came here and people said, 'You won't talk.' Well, for what? You already labeled me an underachiever. You've got nothing good to say about me, so why should I try to fill you up with [baloney]? You've got your opinion formed about me already. Give me a chance to show you what I can do.
"And that's what [defensive line coach] Greg Blache and [assistant head coach -- defense] Gregg Williams did, and this year the bar is raised even higher, so I've got to go out and push myself even harder -- through injuries or whatever; when I'm tired and fatigued -- just push to get better and better each play, each day, each week. You can't just stay at a standstill; each day you've got to get better and better."
Griffin, selected 16th overall by the New York Giants in 2000, was the engine on Washington's NFL's third-ranked defense, and his suffocating presence in the middle had everything to do with its effectiveness against the run. The highest-paid player on an unheralded and workmanlike unit, Griffin had by far the best season of his pro career. Pro Football Prospectus, which publishes a comprehensive statistical analysis, rated Griffin "the best run-stuffing defensive tackle in the league last year," and gave the Redskins' defensive line the second-highest rating in the league.
"He had a huge impact on this defense," said Pro Bowl linebacker Marcus Washington. "He's a guy who just gets into the backfield and destroys everything. He blows up running plays. He's just a beast once he gets going, and a guy a lot of people don't really know. He's kind of our best-kept secret around here. He definitely doesn't get the attention he deserves, but in a game you definitely better pay attention to number 96."
Griffin, 29, tied cornerback Shawn Springs for the team lead with six sacks, and led Washington's linemen with 96 tackles and 65 solo tackles (his previous career-best for total tackles was 68). A 6-foot-3, 310-pound tackle, he had enough power to regularly engage two offensive linemen and still cut down running backs at the line of scrimmage and disrupt quarterbacks in the backfield (he led the Redskins with 15 tackles for a loss). He had at least two solo tackles in every game.
The Redskins allowed only 3.1 yards per carry, a half-yard better than anyone else in the NFL and the lowest in modern franchise history (since 1946), yet Griffin was only named a Pro Bowl alternate. Again, Griffin said nothing of the snub at the time, focusing solely on helping the team. But, it did not go unnoticed.
"After the season," Griffin said, "when you stop and look at the numbers and look at everything, I'm not going to lie and say it didn't surprise me [not to make the Pro Bowl]. After it was all over and I stopped to look at it. I said, 'Damn.' But I guess that goes to show that I'm still not respected, and people have formed a certain opinion about me. Now I'm a one-year wonder. That's why I keep working."
The Redskins saw an untapped resource in Griffin and quickly agreed to a seven-year, $31 million deal. "You could see that he had athleticism and was willing to work hard and was a tough guy," Blache said. "The biggest difference in his game was the attention to detail. I think he always had a lot of confidence in his ability to compete in this league at this level. The thing he improved on so much last season was his technique."
Washington's immediate interest impressed Griffin, and he dedicated himself to honing that technique. With Blache running the defensive line, he had no choice. Blache has forced him to always drive straight ahead -- no more shuffling side to side -- and to harness his power through sound fundamentals. In a system that preaches selflessness, Griffin is a true believer -- "That's why I can sleep at night, because I didn't sell nobody out for myself on defense," he said. "I did it within the schemes."
Still, Griffin peppers his conversation with self-criticism, reiterating time and again about how much he needs to improve, how many mistakes he made last season. He's still fuming over two tackles for a loss that got away in Week 4 in Cleveland, about how the Redskins should have allowed even fewer rushing yards. And after a year of relative silence, he now is not shy about speaking up.
"When I left New York I had a lot to prove," Griffin said, "and I've still got a lot to prove. Each day I've got to prove something. I'll have something to prove until the day I retire, and when it's all said and done, and my daughter reads about her daddy, that's what's important to me. Nothing else."