Redskins’ handling of Robert Griffin III’s first two months in Washington blurs the lines between quarterback and candidate.
By Dan Friedell
Robert Griffin III began his campaign for—let’s go ahead and say it—president of the Washington Redskins when he made an orchestrated first appearance at FedEx Field on April 28, just a few days after the team made him the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft.
And it’s possible, save for some lowly NFL teams like the Cleveland Browns, that no team is more desperate for a “president” than the Redskins. Not since the Hogs were riding high in the late 1980s and Joe Gibbs was the most influential man in town, have the Redskins had an icon like New England’s Tom Brady or Drew Brees in New Orleans.
In this political season, whether or not there’s a change in the occupants of the White House, no man will make a bigger impact on our nation’s capital and the entire metro area than Griffin.
At his first campaign rally the man who will lead the Redskins on opening day (Sept. 9 in New Orleans against Brees) jogged out of the end zone tunnel below the Geico sign, (an ‘80’s-style Redskins hat propped on his braided hair) dress shoes shining above the gloriously green grass, and hopped up onto a small stage to greet close to 20,000 screaming fans. While this may sound contrived, it’s the truth: A cloudy day became sunny just before he emerged from the tunnel.
Griffin’s appearance had all the trimmings of an old-fashioned whistle-stop tour. The only thing missing from the scene—as his career highlights played on the HD video board —was the train caboose from where he could wave to his screaming fans.
After an introduction from team broadcaster Larry Michael, Griffin had a few words.
“What’s up? How ya’ll doin’?” he said above chants of ‘R-G-Three’ that sounded remarkably similar to ‘M-V-P’. “I’m excited. Let’s do this.”
And then, after a not-so-crisp singing of “Hail to the Redskins” with the team’s marching band backing him and lyrics rolling by on the video screen, Griffin left the stage and headed wherever agent Ben Dogra (a Fairfax native) wanted his star-on-the-verge to appear next.
Aside from not knowing “Hail to the Redskins” by heart, there wasn’t much room for criticism in Griffin’s reveal to Washington’s fans. And that’s the way the team likes it. Perhaps they’ve taken a few lessons from those White House occupants. You see the president walking to Marine One. You see him emerging from Air Force One. You see him in a controlled press conference or at a high school gym for a town hall meeting. That’s how the Redskins have been presenting Griffin, too. You see him at rookie camp, you see him at OTAs (“voluntary” workouts), you see him on Redskins-produced television shows on Comcast SportsNet. He speaks to the crowd of reporters from behind a podium. There are no “one-on-ones” with the man who might save the Redskins, unless you’re Jay Leno, or write for NFL.com.
So the smoothly produced first glimpse of coach Mike Shanahan’s prized quarterback (snagged by trading four draft picks to the St. Louis Rams, including the team’s first-round picks in 2013 and 2014), left fans like Centreville’s Adam Felton beaming as he walked to his car.
“He’s a leader, and that’s the one thing we’ve been missing here in D.C. for 10 or 15 years,” says Felton, 39, who was going out to buy Griffin III jerseys for himself and his two young sons. “Everything he’s said so far, he’s always talking about his team and his coaches. That’s a guy who’s a leader. He’s not a guy who’s coming in and taking all the credit about being the savior of D.C. He’s going to come in and rally the troops and say: ‘Together we can do this.’”
And that’s exactly how the team wants its fans, who haven’t been able to cheer for a championship contender for over 20 years, who’ve suffered through owner Daniel Snyder’s season-ticket lawsuit and Jim Zorn as their head coach, to react.
But the question is this: Can Griffin III—like the aforementioned quarterbacks—carry the team to a Super Bowl title in the next decade? Can he make the fans forget the last 20 years of bad draft choices and ill-concieved free-agent signings? Can he forge a link to the glory days of the ‘80s and early ‘90s? Most people think he can, and during campaign season, before the debates and the pressure, the candidate can do no wrong.
Understanding that you must solidify your base of supporters, or else the candidate can be undercut, Shanahan named Griffin his starting quarterback after the first day of rookie camp in early May. But don’t call the move a coronation, since Griffin, who has gone out of his way to put modesty front and center, wouldn’t want that. Whatever you do choose to call it, the Redskins certainly see Griffin’s arrival in town as the beginning of a new era. He has the fans, media and NFL in a tizzy. How’s this for some evidence?
• WTTG carried the press conference at FedEx Field live, breaking into a Major League Baseball game. There were 11 video cameras on a riser and six still photographers clicking away every time Griffin flashed his toothy smile.
• Tom Boswell, the venerable sports columnist of the Washington Post, said to anyone who would listen, “The last time this place was so full was for the return of Joe Gibbs.” He wondered if Griffin, who graduated early from both high school in Copperas Cove, Texas, and from Baylor University, just up the highway in Waco, so he could turn pro this year and not in 2013, would handle himself better in front of the microphone than the last high-profile quarterback (Heath Shuler, who had trouble understanding the media’s questions at a similar event) the team selected third overall 18 seasons ago. When Griffin said, “You can never walk up to a 30-year-old man when you’re 22 and tell him what to do. You have to earn his respect, so I just want them to know that I’m here to work and I’m ready to help this team win,” there was no doubt he understood the question.
• The NFL Network broadcast live Griffin’s first “podium session” from the opening day of OTAs (voluntary workouts) at Redskins Park in Ashburn on May 21. A security guard at the complex’s main gate that drizzly Monday morning marveled at the number of cars in the secondary grass parking lot, saying, “This is what it usually looks like for the first day of training camp.”
• The league itself, derisively nicknamed “the No Fun League” due to its insistence on the uniformity of uniforms (former audacious Redskins running back Clinton Portis was often fined for his not- by-the-book striped socks) authorized Roman numerals on the back of a jersey for the first time. (Griffin will wear No. 10 in burgundy and gold, with “Griffin III” on the back, but it’s unlikely he’ll be the only NFL player to take advantage of the relaxing of the rule.)
And Griffin’s fans, teammates and former Redskins have eaten it up. Grifffin’s comments at his April introduction were carried live on video screens in the stadium, with fans cheering in response to various Griffin comments. Even London Fletcher, the team’s defensive and emotional leader and a 15-season NFL veteran, said he only chose to return to Washington once the team traded for the No. 2 pick, confident he would finally have a quarterback to look forward to watching. Doug Williams, who rallied the Redskins to a 42-10 win after a 10-0 deficit in Super Bowl XXII in ‘88, says Griffin is in a perfect place, and offered some sage advice for the candidate.
“He has to relax and be Robert Griffin,” says Williams from Grambling State University in Louisiana, where he’s in his second tour as head coach at his alma mater. “Do what he did in order to get him there. You can’t do no more or no less. The organization needs to put people around him to take the burden off. His job is to put playmakers in position to make plays.”
Williams, of all the people with a connection to the Redskins, may be the most qualified to speak about Griffin’s credentials. Think of him as a grizzled former-president, validating his party’s choice of nominee. Before leading the Redskins to a Super Bowl, he was the first draft pick for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in ‘78. He was never fazed by the pressures of the NFL, and lifted the historically pathetic Florida team to an NFC Championship Game appearance a season later.
“I started at Grambling as a freshman, and played with guys who were two or three years ahead of me,” says Williams, noting that Griffin became the starter at Baylor just minutes into the first game of his first season. “I’m a firm believer that leaders are not chosen. Leaders are not appointed; leaders are born. You can’t teach leadership; you can teach confidence.”
When Griffin took the reins at Baylor as a freshman, the Bears hadn’t won a game the previous season in the Big-12 South Division playing against strong teams like Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M. A year later they won twice. It wasn’t until last year, behind Griffin’s Heisman Trophy-winning season, the Bears won more than they lost in the conference.
The experience of playing against college teams stocked with NFL talent is something Williams could relate to, and he believes it will serve Griffin well.
“At Grambling, I played against guys like Walter Payton,” he says. “If you could block and tackle at Grambling, you could do it anywhere.”
Perhaps Griffin will take that confidence into his first season in the NFL, knowing that he had some great games against college football’s best teams— winning six in a row to end his career and never leading the offense to fewer than 31 points along the way.
“I don’t have to do everything,” he said at that initial press conference. “All of these guys are very talented—many all-Americas, many all-Conference players. Everybody’s on this team for a reason. They want to win, and they’re good at what they do, so I don’t have to do everything by myself.
And according to Jack Welch, Griffin’s coach at Copperas Cove High, pressure is something he’s never felt on a football field. He thrived in intense AAU track and field competitions as a boy, so by the time he got to high school, he was comfortable competing in front of big crowds at meets or games.
“When we won the state title in track his junior year, we had a lot of people ask if this would be the biggest meet we had coming up,” says Welch. “I’d say, ‘You don’t have a clue.’ Robert was running national meets every year since he was a young person. This is a state meet and a big deal in Texas, but Robert has been before those audiences before. And that’s helped him right out into the pros. He’s been there and done that. You don’t have young people who’ve had the types of experiences he’s had.”
One of those experiences came just over four years ago, when after his freshman year at Baylor, Griffin ran the 400-meter hurdles at the Olympic Trials. Talk about training all year for one or two races. Griffin made it into the semifinals with a time of 49.7 seconds, but then missed out on the final heat by an eyelash, .13 seconds. The winning time in the final heat, from eventual Olympic bronze medalist Bershawn Jackson, was 48.17 seconds.
During the OTAs and minicamps, Shanahan often marveled at Griffin’s impressive speed on the football field, calling it “Olympic.”
“He has that type of speed, and he can compete at that level,” said Shanahan at the end of minicamp. “It gives you an idea of the ability he does have. To even think of a guy, a football player, having that type of speed, especially at the quarterback position, is very unusual.
“[The good thing] about the NFL is you get more than one shot. You get a number of shots as time goes on.”
But when Griffin has just one shot, like 4th-and-goal from the 10 with time running out, Griffin has been successful. Just ask Welch.
“It was the Waco game his senior year. We called a quarterback draw. All of us wondered if it was the right play to call. Robert dropped back, and he cut through them like a knife. Right from about the two yard line, he jumped and got his body in the end zone and scored. That was a real euphoric moment.”
Welch’s team didn’t win that game … the Bulldawgs lost in overtime. But they, behind Griffin, rallied in the playoffs and played for the state title.
Every candidate needs solid grass-roots credentials like that. That’s how he moves from state Senate to Congress to the keynote speech at the convention. A tale of overcoming defeat, some sort of adversity, makes him human. And Griffin’s knee injury that cost him his sophomore season at Baylor fits that requirement. According to an ESPN the Magazine story, that’s when Griffin thought he might never make good on his promise and his father had to push him to attack his rehab program. He came back stronger, more polished than before, eventually earning the Heisman Trophy two years later.
But to be successful on election day, to earn delegates, a candidate needs the knowledge of those who have come before him, and the support of party leaders. It seems Griffin is getting that from Fletcher, whose locker is next door.
“He’s very humble, very respectful, not coming in feeling like he’s entitled to anything,” says Fletcher, who made the St. Louis Rams as an undrafted free-agent out of tiny John Carroll University. “He’s willing to work, he works hard, he’s in here early, and he’s in his playbook. There are some first-round draft picks, especially high guys, they come in and feel like things should be given to them. That’s not the case with him.”
Fletcher explains how important showing veteran players a strong work ethic is for a rookie.
“I was voted special teams captain; I didn’t think much of it, but then one of the veteran guys came up to me and said, ‘Normally I wouldn’t vote for a rookie to be a captain, but you’ve earned it’—that spoke volumes. Guys respected the way I carried my business.”
Fletcher also describes his own regimen for staying sharp and healthy into his late 30s, especially in a league where most careers last just few years.
• Film study. “Eight hours a week outside of what you do with the coaches.”
• Staying healthy through visits to chiropractors and massage therapists. “If you’re out in the trenches with the guys, your words will carry more volume.”
• Awareness of how actions off the field affect the team. “Leaders care more about others than themselves.”
Players like Chris Cooley and Fletcher don’t seem to mind showing the young guys the ropes, and that’s what Griffin III, nominee and all, still is.
“It is your responsibility to bring the new guys in and teach them how to be pros: learning, studying, sharing some of your experiences, so they won’t make the same mistakes you’ve made,” says Fletcher, who learned to be a pro athlete by following in the footsteps of his veteran Rams teammates.
So by the time Griffin left Redskins Park in Ashburn at the conclusion of the final minicamp session on June 14, he had spoken over 5,000 words to assembled reporters, practiced for days, impressed his teammates and even walked on the FedEx Field grass ahead of the USA vs. Brazil soccer game in late May. He has been “out there,” but aside from his visit to Leno where he famously put on a beatboxing demo, and a trading card company’s event for rookies in Los Angeles, Griffin has been all business, all football. And that’s how the team seems to like it. Requests for one-on-one interviews were denied, and even offers to send in questions via email through the team or Dogra were batted away. It seems the only people who may be able to contain Griffin this year are his media relations team.
The last glimpse of Griffin, before he took five weeks off to prepare for his first NFL training camp (which begins July 26 at Redskins Park) and wait for the contract which would make his career as a Redskin official, had a distinct candidate-at-a-fundraiser feel.
Outdoors, sun shining, VIPs in a tent watching receivers run routes and kickers boot meaningless field goals. The kind of picture postcard day you would like for the cameras’ last shot of the candidate. As the practice wrapped, fans grabbed Sharpies, jerseys and footballs, and rushed to the metal barrier that separated them from Griffin. In the midst of other players doing interviews on their way off the field, you could hear the fans: “Mr. Griffin,” and “Robert, please.” He signed autographs, shook hands and posed for pictures.
All that was missing was a baby to kiss. But that’s probably around the corner, too, in this campaign season.
A good politician knows his constituency. So one presumes Griffin is getting tips from teammates on what to say when asked about Dallas week, or how to handle his first trip to play in front of the notoriously rowdy Philadelphia fans. But is Griffin aware of how intense the Redskins fans can be? While the ferocity of fandom in this area may have ebbed in recent years, there’s still a vital base. A few players weigh in on what separates a Redskins fan from the rest of those in the NFL.
Tim Hightower, Running Back, Episcopal High School, Alexandria:
Growing up in this area, you can’t help [but be] a Redskins fan. There’s a lot of tradition and history. It’s one thing to be on the outside, but when you’re on the inside you feel it. From the time you walk into the building or when you go to the grocery store, you get that sense. It’s a good thing to be a part of. You embrace knowing that everything you do is going to affect not just you, but everyone else around you. There’s pressure, but pressure in a good sense. If you’re not doing well, they’ll let you know. If you’re passionate about what you do, the city will rally behind you.
Evan Royster, Running Back, Westfield High School, Chantilly:
I lived with a couple of die-hard Redskins fans for a little while. I hear from my friends all the time. There’s so much excitement around this team. It’s hard to live up to the expectations, but that’s what we want to do. It’s hard for teammates to understand the mentality of a Redskins fan, but I try to explain it. I have so many people surrounding me that are those really excited people. We don’t talk about it as a team, but I’m sure other people hear about it.
London Fletcher, Linebacker, 15-year NFL Veteran. Cleveland, Ohio:
I see people when I’m going out to eat. People say stuff to me. You can tell how adamant the fans are about the Redskins around here. They’ll voice their opinions. First and foremost our responsibility is to go out and try to win football games, with that if you win, the better the fans feel about the team. Winning solves everything. Being a football fan is probably a little different in DC, than in Cleveland where I grew up, because you have fans from all over, Cowboys fans, Steelers, Eagles, Giants. In Cleveland, the whole city is Cleveland fans. It’s not a transient city. You’ll find more fans of other teams up here.
FIFTH QUARTER [fifth kwawr-ter]
This courtesy should be especially prominent with quarterback Robert Griffin III, the Redskins’ pick with the 2nd pick in this year’s NFL draft and, now, the de facto face of the franchise. ¶ It is typical during this honeymoon period that athletes secure endorsements, while their interest may be at an early-career peak. ¶ Already, Griffin has inked deals nationally with Adidas (shoes and apparel), Castrol (synthetic motor oil), EvoShield (protective athletic gear), Sprint (telecommunications) and Subway (sandwiches). And it shouldn’t be too long before Northern Virginia viewers see him in a slate of commercials for popular industries (Eastern Motors comes to mind) that have been flanked with the burgundy-and-gold elite in the past —David Gignilliat