By AJ Perez
Courtesy of FOX Sports
This region’s expectations for a charismatic rookie quarterback with braids, “Seize the moment” scribbled on his cleats and the burden of an NFL franchise on his back can be summed up by 12-year-old James Ricks, a Washington Redskins fan from Riverdale, Md.
“RG3 is a legend!” Ricks exclaimed before his mother challenged that assertion as they walked into training camp this week.
Robert Griffin III — the reigning Heisman Trophy winner for whom the Redskins mortgaged a good portion of their future drafts to select at No. 2 overall in April’s NFL Draft — has certainly swelled what’s anticipated for a team that missed the playoffs each of the past five seasons and was 5-11 in 2011.
“I don’t think it will be a burden on anyone,” Griffin said. “I don’t think the team feels any pressure. Of course, people are going to throw expectations out there, but the last time I checked, (experts) have us fourth in the NFC East. Not that we care, but we are going to try to make sure we aren’t fourth.”
In his first meaningful action as a pro in the Redskins’ preseason opener against the Buffalo Bills last Thursday — not that his sandwich and shoe commercials weren’t impressive — Griffin gave no reason to dampen the fervor. Griffin was 4-for-6 for 70 yards, including a 20-yard TD pass to the ‘Skins’ other major offseason pickup, receiver Pierre Garcon.
“It’s definitely been a good camp,” Griffin said. “You can definitely be confident. You can never be overconfident. I think that experience in the Buffalo game kind of reassured myself and reassured everybody else about why they brought me here.”
Redskins coach Mike Shanahan has done his best to shield the most promising quarterback he’s had since Jay Cutler, when both were with the Denver Broncos. (Coincidently, the Redskins will face Cutler and the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on Saturday.) Shanahan has limited the news media’s access to Griffin to one session per week.
“I love talking to you guys,” Griffin said. “It’s great every single time, but that’s Coach Mike’s decision. He wants me to talk to you guys once a week, so I’m talking to you guys once a week. The biggest thing is that I’m the quarterback and I’m the face of the team, the face of the franchise. I think we all understand that. The guys understand that if I’m getting all the attention, we’re doing extremely well on the field.”
Just how much is Griffin protected from pesky reporters? The team’s public relations staff cut off Monday’s session to about 15 minutes — interrupting an innocuous question about whether Griffin purchased lemonade from a stand set up by children near his house.
“It’s not to restrict his access to you,” Shanahan told FOXSports.com. “It’s the same thing with Tom Brady, Peyton Manning — all the quarterbacks. They have a learning curve, and they need to spend time studying. He is a guy who is very natural in front of the media, but he has a workload he needs to get to.”
That has left reporters to seize what little other info they can about Griffin, like what lay inside his locker when the room was first opened up to the media on Tuesday. There was a fairly sizable Incredible Hulk action figure along with some other comic book characters, like Spider-Man, strewn about. There were some inspirational messages printed out and taped to a cabinet of his locker, including “KNOW YOUR WAY.”
Griffin’s next media obligation was days away, so reporters weren’t able to query what the decorations meant.
The cocoon won’t be so insulating when it comes to the field, not with an offensive line that has been in flux because of injuries. Jammal Brown (hip), Kory Lichtensteiger (knee), Chris Chester (ankle) and Trent Williams (foot) have all been sidelined for stretches in camp as Griffin not only has to get under center — something he didn’t do in the shotgun-oriented offense he guided at Baylor — but he has to do it with an ever-changing cast of blockers.
“That’s football in general,” Shanahan said. “You are going to have guys down at certain times. You just hope you don’t lose them for the season. That’s going to happen to most teams in the National Football League. That’s why you have to have depth and be consistent to make the playoffs.”
The arrival of Griffin — who cost the ‘Skins three first-round picks and a second-round selection for the St. Louis Rams’ No. 2 pick — has certainly magnified the importance of a healthy line. At the same time, he eliminated a quarterback dilemma that has seen Donovan McNabb, Rex Grossman and John Beck cycle through over the past two seasons.
“He doesn’t have to worry about making a mistake,” Lichtensteiger told FOXSports.com. “He can be aggressive. He won’t have it in the back of his mind that one mistake will get him pulled. Not saying that was the case last year, but there was a certain element of that. I think knowing you have the confidence of the coach and your teammates means a lot.”
Added Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo: “You kind of got rid of the riffraff. Robert is our guy. There is no back-and-forth stuff. We are going to go with him. He’s going to be a great leader.”
Mike Shanahan and his offensive coordinator son, Kyle Shanahan, will be taking advantage of Griffin’s speed if the plays they ran this week in camp were any indication. The offense spent a good deal of time practicing the option and other designed run plays for Griffin, plays that will showcase Griffin’s elusiveness, but plays that also expose him to defenders who are much stronger and faster than what he saw at Baylor.
“As a football player, you have to withstand whatever comes your way,” receiver Santana Moss said.
“Not everything is going to be peaches and cream. You are going to take your lumps and take your bruises. At the end of the day, he’s not always going to run. When it comes down to it, he’s going to throw the ball.”
Along with the hype, Griffin has earned something in recent weeks that can’t be built by marketing campaigns: respect among his teammates.
“He wants to learn and he has the ability to do so,” Redskins fullback Darrel Young told FOXSports.com. “You set yourself up for success. He’s a great character guy, and he does his homework. Guys appreciate that. He’s got the foundation. Sure, people say he’s a rookie, but he’s not a rookie to us anymore. He’s a veteran and has to think like that. He’s the one calling the shots.”
That didn’t mean Griffin got a pass on rookie hazing rituals. Orakpo wouldn’t say what exactly those were, but it often involves female clothing and other means of embarrassment.
“He accepted it,” Orakpo said. “It’s a humbling experience. They all have to do it.”
Griffin’s arrival has also induced a sort of amnesia at Redskins Park.
“Nobody is talking about the five wins we had last year,” Young said. “I haven’t heard that once. The focus now is on how good we can be and how good we will be.”
It is certainly heady times in suburban Washington, where kids are clamoring for autographs from RG3, so much so that Orakpo mockingly chased after Griffin with a football in one hand and a Sharpie in the other after practice Monday. Nobody has anything negative to say about Griffin, at least anything substantive.
“Not personality wise, but when he throws a pass he does something with his hands,” Redskins tight end Niles Paul said when FOXSports.com asked to levy some criticism of Griffin. “He always does some little, twitchy thing afterwards on every throw. It’s funny. Every time we see it on film, we start laughing.”