Politicians and professional football players are rarely grouped together. Washington is no ordinary town, though. The President of the United States and the starting quarterback of the Washington Redskins are indeed the two most heavily scrutinized men in the nation’s capital.
While the nation's voters will demand an exhaustive resume from its presidential candidates this November, Redskins fans are placing all their hope on the shoulders of a largely unproven 22-year-old man.
“Everyone knows in Washington, D.C. that the most important person, with all apologies to President Obama, is the Redskins' quarterback,” said Tarik El-Bashir, Redskins Insider for Comcast SportsNet.
That person, of course, is Robert Griffin III, and he hardly seems human. Checking in at 6'2", 223 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, Griffin tore up the track as he blazed an astonishing 4.41 time in the 40-yard dash.
“He can scramble real well. Matter of fact, I think that he's one of the best scramblers that I've ever seen,” said local fan Samson Ugorji.
There's more to the story behind Griffin's unprecedented hype train besides his physical skill set, though.He is as famous for his ear-to-ear grin and showmanship than he is for his speed or arm strength. “There are very few people who have the charisma to dominate a room, especially at 22 years old, but when he walks in, it's all eyes on him,” said El-Bashir.
Griffin has yet to play an NFL regular season down, but has already laid claim to the league's top selling jersey and has a household nickname in “RG3.”
“He has a nickname already and he hasn't played yet. He seems pretty marketable,” said Sarah Patgorski, who leafed through a rack of Griffin jerseys at a sporting goods store. "He's a brand already.”
Perhaps it's unfair for an entire city to rest its hopes on an unproven recent college graduate. The reality, though, is that Redskins fans are desperate for something — anything — to cheer for.
The team has not won a division championship since 1999 or a conference title since 1991. The all-important quarterback position has been a revolving door in Washington as the coaches have turned to 12 different starters since the turn of the century. Redskins supporters have been a fan base deprived of hope, and fans view Griffin as capable of filling the void inside them.
“I never really had a favorite team. I don't want to say that I just jumped on the bandwagon, but I've kind of been a Redskins fan undercover,” said Ugorji, who explains that Griffin's arrival has made fans more proud to sport the burgundy and gold, and it's not hard to see why.
Griffin has talent on a team that only sent one member — 37-year-old inside linebacker London Fletcher — to the 2012 Pro Bowl. He has personality that easily overshadows predecessors Rex Grossman, Jason Campbell and John Beck. Unlike most franchise quarterbacks, who are white and represent cities that aren't, Griffin figures to grow into an influential black role model in Washington, D.C.
“RG3 is how a football player should be. He's flamboyant on the field, but off the field, he's mild-mannered and very mature,” said local fan and high school football player Jonathan Dyer.
A perfect storm of conditions have created suffocating expectations for Griffin dating all the way back to March, when the Redskins orchestrated a blockbuster trade with the St. Louis Rams to move up to the second overall slot in April's college draft for the rights to select Griffin. The team packaged three first round picks with a second round pick to complete the deal, which only intensifies the pressure that Griffin will be forced to operate under.
While most fans will say that Griffin will need a few seasons to get adjusted to the NFL game and develop chemistry within Washington's system, the fan base's short-term expectations are palpable. After last year's number one overall pick Cam Newton threw for over 4,000 yards and accounted for 35 touchdowns as a rookie, the perception that rookie quarterbacks are simply too raw to be effective in the NFL from day one has been flipped on its head. El-Bashir implores fans to be patient.
“Through two weeks of training camp, his performances have really been uneven. There are times where he has looked just brilliant. That said, there are some challenges that he's facing right now. There are times where he looks a little bit like a rookie. It's going to be a learning curve for him.”
Griffin is unique among NFL players in that he has not had to earn his superstar status with performance on the field. Instead, he is tasked with the even tougher assignment of clinging to that status under the perpetual glare of the spotlight. In Washington, there will be no escaping it.
While most fellow rookie quarterbacks will be spending their Sundays on the bench, holding a clipboard, and learning their craft by observing an established veteran in preparation and in action, Griffin will enjoy none of those luxuries.
He will be thrown to the wolves for the duration of his four year, $21.1 million rookie contract, and whether he emerges from it with his stardom intact or as a monumental bust will shape the future of the Redskins franchise.
While nobody can definitively predict how long Griffin will keep the fire of hope burning inside Redskins fans, there is no doubt that it's already lit.
“Washington is all about hope,” said local fan Ryan Eugene, “and RG3 is the next level of hope for the Redskins.”
Melanie Aguilar, Andrew Feather and Joseph Sageman attended The Washington Post’s Young Journalists Development Program.