Even in an era of completion percentages over 60 percent, enhanced late hit in the pocket rules, and no contact on receivers more than five yards downfield, NFL quarterback is perhaps the most difficult position in sports.
Sure, hitting a major league curveball or stopping an NHL-blasted slap shot are tough, but you don’t have 300-pound vengeance-seeking foes trying to tackle you while you’re handling those.
So while Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have made playing quarterback look easy for years, they weren’t that expert at the beginning of their pro careers. Second-year man Brady was more than shaky after replacing the injured Drew Bledsoe as New England’s starter on Sept. 23, 2001. And Manning was 3-13 as Indianapolis’ rookie starter in 1998.
Which brings us to Robert Griffin III’s delayed rude encounter with that reality this past Saturday night at Soldier Field. The Redskins’ new face of the franchise looked much less like the Heisman Trophy winner/smiling Adidas/Gatorade/Subway spokesman he was for eight-plus months and much more like a rookie under siege.
GAME PHOTOS: Redskins vs. Bears
Griffin had begun his NFL career by completing four of six passes for 70 yards and a touchdown for an excellent 145.8 passer rating in leading Washington to a 7-6 preseason-opening victory at Buffalo.
The Bills, who had shut out the Redskins 23-0 last October while sacking the since-released John Beck 10 times, were supposed to be better on defense this year with the addition of Mario Williams. How much tougher could the Bears be, especially minus injured star linebacker Brian Urlacher?
Griffin’s first two drives against Chicago were actually a step up from Buffalo as Washington picked up two first downs and 52 yards before being forced to punt. But on the first play of their third possession, Griffin fumbled while being sacked by Bears defensive end Israel Idonije, who had beaten rookie running back Alfred Morris’ block.
“I didn’t see him coming,” Griffin said. “What I was actually trying to do there was throw the ball to the guy in the flat, who was open. (Idonije) just hit me and it came out. I should have tried to secure the ball in that situation, but … if you get hit while you’re throwing, it’s kind of hard to have ball security. It’s just something I have to learn from and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Chicago recovered at the Washington 8 and took a 14-0 lead two plays later. Griffin was sacked again during the subsequent three-and-out series. He did then lead a nine-play march for a field goal, but more than half the 63 yards gained came via a defensive pass interference penalty. And when Griffin and the starters turned in their helmets for baseball caps at halftime, they had managed just that lone field goal. The 22-year-old from Baylor had completed five of eight passes for just 49 yards, run three times for 19 yards, and suffered three sacks in just 11 dropbacks.
“Two of those sacks were screens and we just have to learn to throw those at the guy’s feet,” coach Mike Shanahan. “The other sack, (Robert) tried to make a play and the guy right behind him hit him. Those are the types of experiences … that he will get better at in time. And we have to protect him better, against an excellent defense.”
In an era of constant personnel changes, rankings from the previous season don’t necessarily flow into the current one, but Chicago’s defense was only No. 17 in 2011. Griffin and Washington will play nine of their 16 games this season against defenses that ranked higher last year including top-ranked Pittsburgh and No. 3 Baltimore. The Redskins also have nine games against defenses that recorded at least 40 sacks led by Minnesota and Philadelphia, which tied for NFL lead with 50.
Griffin’s world-class speed will only help so much if he operates behind a line that was as ineffective as Saturday’s group that included backups Maurice Hurt, Adam Gettis and Tyler Polumbus, the latter of whom is seeming more like a regular with every day that Jammal Brown remains on the physically unable to perform list.
As is his nature, Griffin looked on the bright side Saturday night, but even the upbeat 22-year-old knows that he could well follow such Hall of Fame quarterbacks John Elway and Troy Aikman by enduring a long rookie year.
“I think a lot of good came from this game,” Griffin said. “It’s not that I’ve never been in those situations before, it’s just that sometimes you have to know when not to try and make a play. I think you learn the more you play.”
Griffin has just three more quarters to learn on Saturday against Indianapolis before the games that matter begin on Sept. 9 in the raucous Superdome against an angry New Orleans defense looking to take out its Bountygate frustrations on anything that moves, especially a rookie quarterback with a slew of national endorsements before he has ever taken an NFL snap. In short, the Saints might make Griffin long for Chicago if he and the Redskins don’t step up in the interim.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin