He came in with a plan, and the plan was to have no plan, or at least not one that was obvious. In the NFL, they can sniff out a wannabe-leader, a bold-faced climber, a fraud from a mile away. All the way back in the spring, Robert Griffin III knew he wanted to make the Washington Redskins his team, that he needed to do so — to mold it to his will — in order to take the franchise where he wanted to take it.
But he had to do it the right way — slowly, organically, respectfully. Eventually, undoubtedly, he would become the Redskins’ leader, but it couldn’t be his call.
Griffin, the son of two retired Army sergeants, had come into the Redskins’ organization as the equivalent of a five-star general — with a $21.1 million contract and four national television commercials before he had taken his first professional snap. But he was going to conduct himself like a private.
“My strategy was to come in and try to lead by example first,” Griffin said recently. “Being a rookie, you don’t want to come in talking right away. You can rub a lot of guys the wrong way. . . . One thing you can’t do as a leader is come out and say you’re the leader.”
Some eight months after he first walked through the doors of their practice facility, Griffin has the Redskins — a last-place team each of the previous four seasons — on the verge of the playoffs. A win over Dallas on Sunday would cement the team’s first division title in 13 years and earn the Redskins a home playoff game next weekend. Named to the NFL Pro Bowl team on Wednesday, Griffin is also a leading candidate for rookie of the year.
And there is little doubt, with all due respect to veteran linebacker London Fletcher, that the Redskins are Griffin’s team now. He wears a captain’s “C” on his chest, an extraordinary honor for a rookie, bestowed upon him at midseason. Especially on offense, but increasingly across the entire locker room, the Redskins take their cues from the 22-year-old superstar with the preternatural confidence.
“Everybody gets in line behind him and says, ‘Take us to the promised land,’ ” wide receiver Santana Moss, a 12-year veteran, said after last Sunday’s win over Philadelphia. “I know it sounds funny saying that, but he shows what it takes every day to get to where he’s trying to get by how he prepares. It shows up on the field on Sundays. There’s no question you want that guy to be a captain.”
You could argue, in fact, that Griffin’s greatest individual achievement this year isn’t the 104.1 passer rating that ranks second in the NFL, or the 752 rushing yards, which ranks first among quarterbacks, but the way in which he has altered the culture of the Redskins’ locker room. He has lifted it up with his overwhelming force of belief, rather than being dragged down by the weight of all the losing that met him when he arrived.
“His expectation of winning and playing great is a huge influence in here,” said veteran tight end Chris Cooley. “It’s been a drastic change of culture, and you could say Robert has been the biggest part of that. He’s a natural leader. When he talks, people listen — and people believe. No one said, ‘Okay, you’re the quarterback, so we’re going to listen to what you say.’ You build that trust.
“It’s an unbelievably hard thing to do. I don’t think he came in and in his mind said, ‘I have to make everyone believe in me.’ I think he came in and said, ‘I believe in myself, and I’m going to do what I do best.’ And the rest just falls into place.”
In a sense, the process by which Griffin became the Redskins’ leader was all just a big charade. Even the team’s most veteran players knew from the moment the Redskins selected Griffin with the No. 2 overall pick of the draft in April that he was the chosen one — their franchise quarterback, a transformational figure who represented the surest, quickest path to winning. If the team was going to go anywhere, the kid was going to lead it.
“We knew when we drafted him he was going to bring a different dynamic to this team that we hadn’t seen before,” left tackle Trent Williams said. “So we welcomed him with open arms.”
But in Griffin’s hands, that process was less a charade than a nod to tradition and protocol, and from Griffin’s own perspective, a deep and innate understanding of the right way to do things.
Griffin knew what he represented, what was expected of him, and what he was capable of. He knew the Redskins’ awful recent history, and he knew he could change their direction — because he had done it before. At Baylor University, he had helped transform the football team from a perennial doormat to a perennial bowl contender — not only through his talents but the sheer force of his personality — and won the Heisman Trophy as a junior.