Robert Griffin III gets credit for everything except the ability of geese to migrate in winter. Now, he’s going to get credit for one more virtue. In big games on big stages, Griffin inspires his teammates to play up to the level of their hopes, not down to the depths of their fears.
Just three games ago, Griffin had a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating in a rout of the Eagles. Then he passed for four touchdowns on Thanksgiving Day in Dallas. Now, he’s completed his three-game sweep of the NFC East with a win head-to-head over Eli Manning and the Super Bowl champion Giants. After a dead-even, all-night battle with New York, Griffin pulled out a fourth-quarter come-from-behind victory, 17-16, with an eight-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon with 11 minutes 31 seconds left to play.
Griffin has the aura of victory. That inspires. That elevates. And, as the Redskins rebuild their franchise, that changes every aspect of their future.
Or, as the loudest crowd at FedEx Field in years, a total of 80,246, put it so pithily with their victory chant: “RGIII, RGIII, RGIII.” You do it three times, of course, then pause, then start again.
Like so many of the supremely gifted, RGIII also has an extra and almost undeserved quality: He even seems a little lucky, too.
In the first quarter, Griffin made his only real mistake of the game, a fumble after a 12-yard run. The ball bounced directly to wide receiver Josh Morgan, who picked it up in stride and wove his way into the end zone to complete a 28-yard touchdown.
Griffin has done so many amazing things that the same thought jumped into thousands of minds: Did he do that on purpose? That’s impossible.
It was just a lucky fumble. But it will soon become one more piece of Griffin lore. “Some people thought he fumbled that ball” to Morgan, Coach Mike Shanahan said later. “Robert has worked on that during the week.”
A room full of reporters sat silent, taken in or, maybe, just believing anything if the protagonist was Griffin.
“Sometimes you’ve got to get lucky,” Shanahan said to help the humorless.
Griffin is just a rookie who thinks that beating the New York Giants is merely a good reason to have a little fun. “We didn’t work on that [fumble] play in practice,” he said. “We wanted to save it for the game.”
Pressed on his fraudulent miracle play, Griffin deadpanned, “It was a pitch to Josh and I’m going to stay with that story.” Then, as he finished his interview, RGIII threw his last pass of the night: “Remember, that was a pitch to Josh.”
At 6-6 the Redskins’ playoff hopes, presumed near death until Griffin rallied the team with a get-on-my-back speech during the team’s bye week, are now more than realistic. With Griffin, the Redskins are now the hot team, the momentum pick. And they’re just one game behind the Giants in the NFC East and one game behind Seattle for the second wild card.
Even if the Giants’ final fourth-quarter drive had not ended in a punt, even if Griffin and the Redskins had not run out the clock for victory, the whole feeling of this game — the Redskins’ ability to make few mistakes in a nerve-racking game, then overcome the ones that they did make — marks this as a turning point in team composure. The Redskins committed only four penalties. Remember when such a must-win game might have brought an avalanche of 14 flags?
In this game, it became clear that Griffin also identified his two primary offensive running mates. As usual, rookie Alfred Morris, with 124 yards on 22 carries, ran like the Giants had insulted everyone he’d ever known. He’s now the Redskins’ all-time rookie rushing leader. He blew through both 1,000 and 1,100 yards on the same night, ending with 1,106.
Garcon, with his second straight 100-yard game, showed that he’s recovered from his foot injury and can provide the speedy receiver the Redskins have lacked for eons.
For 20 years, the Redskins have tended not to play up to reasonable expectations — their own or their fans’ — in many of the games that mattered most. There were exceptions. But few veteran Redskins or long-enduring fans have failed to note the pattern of “being flat” on big stages, including 10 straight losses at home on Monday night.
Redskin team leaders and coaches bemoaned the mystery of “not showing up,” being too tight or too nervous, making too many penalties or simple mental blunders. Any pattern over many years has more than one cause. But one constant through those years was the absence of an inspiring quarterback. The bigger the game, the more a team responds to a special player at the most important position in any team sport.
Everyone identifies this truth in conference championship or Super Bowl games. Of course, Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning gives his team more poise, more confidence that it can come from behind and, perhaps most important of all, an unconscious desire to play up to the level — to be worthy of — their leader.