He crumpled to the turf in pain, and Washington football fans cried out in agony. He searched his soul for answers, and they searched theirs for blame. He steeled himself for the long, lonely, grueling journey back, and they went about their lives, awaiting word. Winter turned to spring, and spring to summer — and now, on fall’s doorstep, the wait is over: Robert Griffin III will return to FedEx Field on Monday night, and together he and his fans will celebrate this new beginning, but also the end of the awful, bitter ordeal of these last eight months.
Actually, eight months plus three days. It was Jan. 6 when Griffin last took a snap for the Washington Redskins, and the toll of what was lost that day will not soon be forgotten: a playoff game, the Redskins’ season, a brilliant young quarterback’s health and whatever bit of innocence remained in the story of Griffin’s remarkable rookie season.
A large part of what Monday night is about, then, as Griffin and the Redskins face the NFC East rival Philadelphia Eagles in this season’s opening game, is determining what was lost forever and what can be regained:
Can the young man known as RGIII, with a fresh scar down his right knee and without the warmup of a single preseason snap, still dazzle and amaze? Has the injury robbed him of his explosive speed and quickness? Have the palace intrigue and internal politics of the past few months robbed him of his infectious joy? Can the Redskins’ coaching staff, and Griffin himself, do a better job of keeping him safe out there?
“It’s not a comeback story,” Griffin, 23, says in the Gatorade-sponsored documentary about his knee rehabilitation. “How can it be a comeback if I was never gone?”
When he runs through that giant, inflatable Redskins helmet and into the sunshine to the roar of the crowd, when he takes that first snap under the stadium lights, the catharsis is one that will be shared by both the quarterback and his fans.
Griffin’s return to the field also brings closure to the melodrama of the past eight months, during which, in the absence of real information, the story of his return played out in a series of cryptic tweets, contradictory statements and public posturing that had the end result of revealing apparent trust issues between player and coach.
After wins and championships, what a sports fan craves most of all is simplicity. Rooting for a team should be the easiest thing in the world. It shouldn’t require sorting through complicated feelings nor choosing between competing visions within the same organization.
In the beginning, it was so simple. Griffin came here as a gift from above, a franchise quarterback with a Heisman Trophy, unmatched athleticism, a scholar’s brains and magnetism that was disarming. He also had an idealist’s unbridled optimism — that he could come into this moribund franchise and change its culture through his on-field brilliance and force of personality.
And to a large extent he did. The Redskins went from 5-11 in 2011 to 10-6 in 2012, winning the NFC East for the first time in 13 years, and Griffin was honored as NFL offensive rookie of the year after leading the league in both yards per pass attempt and yards per rush attempt.
But at the dawn of Year Two of the Griffin era, the formula no longer seems so simple, and Griffin sometimes appears as just another one-time idealist who thought he could change the culture of Washington but wound up changed by it himself.
There was a strange passive-aggressiveness to Griffin’s public posturing during the preseason — such as in the donning of a full game uniform, down to the helmet and knee brace, for an exhibition game he knew he had no chance of playing in. There was a calculatedness to the way he played the loyal soldier in public, but quietly lobbied for the Redskins’ offense to evolve into one based more on passing.
But if Griffin is becoming a political animal only a year into his career, he is at least in the right place for it — meaning Redskins Park, not Washington, D.C.
In Griffin and Coach Mike Shanahan, we had two main characters driven by two sets of external pressures that were sometimes at odds with each other. We had a quarterback hellbent at making it back for Week 1 — who had, in fact, staked his public image on it by appearing in an Adidas commercial in late February entitled “All In For Week 1” — and whose every public utterance, to the point of absurdity, made clear how important that goal was to him.
And we had a coach, perhaps beaten down by the criticism hurled his way over his handling of Griffin in the Seattle game, who needed both to assert his leadership over a player who has supplanted himself as the most important figure in the organization, and to make a big public show of his conservatism with Griffin’s return — so that, in the event something bad were to happen to Griffin, he could say he had taken every precaution.
Into this mix came James Andrews, the team orthopedist and Griffin’s surgeon, who despite plentiful comments to the media never managed to bring medical clarity to the situation, but whose own lofty legacy, in some regards, is at stake with Griffin’s return and continued health.
In one telling sequence that took place over about 12 hours on Aug. 29-30, we had Griffin tweeting his joyous news — “Operation Patience . . . Complete. Cleared. To God Be The Glory” — followed by Shanahan mentioning Andrews’s “concerns” in failing to name Griffin the Week 1 starter, followed by Andrews himself saying: “None of it is true. No concerns.”
The process might have been simple: Griffin would rehab, Andrews would announce when Griffin had been medically cleared, and Shanahan would declare him the Week 1 starter in July. Instead, we had a rehab process that was carried out in secret; a series of contradictory statements from quarterback, coach and doctor regarding Griffin’s condition; and on the eve of the season opener, still no definitive sense of where they all stand with each other.
If 2012 was the year Griffin became the Redskins’ savior, 2013 is the year he has become a grown-up. Who could have known the former would be easier?
Griffin got married this summer — which became a virtually public event when his wedding registry went public. He bought a house — again the subject of widespread gawking after the realtor blabbed to the media.
“Mentally and emotionally, he’s always been light years ahead of his age,” Griffin’s mother, Jacqueline, said. “The things that have happened to him, minus being injured again, were really all on course. He always planned on getting married. He always planned on purchasing a home. We taught our children to always have a plan. This is just a part of his plan. The only part that wasn’t part of the plan was the injury.”
Griffin has become the ultimate modern-day superstar. He speaks to us in commercials and sponsor-driven documentaries, on Twitter and Facebook, and from magazine covers — all the while shielded by his handlers from situations that might force him to get too close to the truth.
Only when he lets his guard down is that truth revealed, such as when he privately told former teammate Chris Cooley about the intrigue surrounding his return, “They’ve taken something great and turned it into something terrible” — which Cooley subsequently relayed on his radio show. Griffin could have been referring to the Redskins, or to the media, but either way it revealed a deep sense of disillusionment that he had otherwise managed to keep hidden.
Griffin was exactly right: His return from a major knee reconstruction in only eight months is a remarkable thing, but the way it has been handled somehow manages to diminish it.
The start of the 2013 season, then, represents a chance to put aside all those complicated feelings — disillusionment, frustration, unease — and recapture the simple, visceral feelings that made 2012 so memorable: The exhilaration of seeing Griffin with the ball and some open field, but also that twinge of fear when a defender bears down on him. The joy of victory, the agony of defeat — in an ideal world, this Redskins season gets no more complicated than that.
When he tore his anterior cruciate ligament as a sophomore at Baylor in 2009 — just after he had grudgingly given up track and field despite being a world-class hurdler — the ensuing rehabilitation had the effect of reminding him how much he loved the game of football.
“I was always one that played football because I was good at it,” Griffin told reporters at the time. “But once it was taken away from me, it helped me see how much I loved it.”
This time — with a more complicated injury, the lateral collateral ligament also repaired, in addition to the reconstructed ACL — he launched himself into his rehab with the same single-minded fervor. But he’s older now, wiser to the nature of both the game and the game beyond the game, and no one expects him to feel the same teenager’s giddiness this time.
It’s okay if a second lengthy rehab doesn’t make him fall in love with football again. All anyone wants to see is that it didn’t make him fall out of love with it.