Reporting David Elfin
A Seattle radio host asked me this morning whether rookie Robert Griffin III’s wondrous debut yesterday in New Orleans had suddenly put the Redskins in the mix in the NFC East. After all, Philadelphia had struggled past woeful Cleveland and Dallas had upset the defending Super Bowl/division champion New York Giants on the road.
Did replacing turnover machine Rex Grossman with the NFL’s top-rated quarterback change the Redskins from a last-place team four years running into a contender just like that?
I praised Griffin for his cool head, strong arm and quick feet in leading the Redskins to the stunning shellacking of the talented Saints, who came into the Superdome as angry about the NFL’s Bounty Gate punishment as their fans who were wearing “Free Sean Payton” T-shirts and whose establishments have “We Don’t Serve This Man” posters emblazoned with Commissioner Roger Goodell’s photo.
Griffin’s 139.9 passer rating was the highest by an NFL rookie in his debut, topping Matt Ryan’s opening for Atlanta in 2008. Griffin’s 320 passing yards were second to Cam Newton’s total for Carolina in 2011.
There was very little to dislike about RGIII’s performance in his parents’ hometown especially in light of the Redskins’ struggles for nearly all of his 22 years at the game’s most important position.
It’s a disgrace that Brad Johnson, who led Washington to its only NFC East title of the past 20 seasons and threw for 4,005 yards in his only full season as its quarterback, is the formerly formidable franchise’s only Pro Bowl passer since Mark Rypien during the last Super Bowl year back in 1991. Only Baltimore (which has dominated with defense), Chicago, Detroit (Matthew Stafford somehow wasn’t chosen in 2011 despite becoming just the second 5,000-yard passer ever) and Miami have been equally deficient when it comes to Pro Bowl quarterbacks.
But yesterday it was Heisman Trophy winner Griffin, not fellow Texan Drew Brees, the record-setting Super Bowl MVP of the Saints who was the better quarterback. Of course, that was just one game against a team that didn’t play well on defense last season.
However, consider the Redskins’ brief history with highly-touted rookie quarterbacks over the previous 55 years.
Washington was crushed 35-3 by San Francisco in Norm Snead’s season-opening debut in 1961. Only 11 of the No. 2 overall draft pick’s 34 passes were caught: eight by teammates and three by the 49ers. Snead would go on to have a journeyman’s career, compiling a 52-99-7 record with a 65.5 passer rating for five franchises over 16 seasons.
Fast forward 33 years to first-year coach Norv Turner’s boneheaded decision to give No. 3 overall selection Heath Shuler his first start against two-time defending champion Dallas. The result was a 34-7 Cowboys laugher in which Shuler completed just 11 of 30 passes for 96 yards. That was a harbinger of an abbreviated, injury-riddled career in which Shuler went 8-14 with an abysmal 54.3 rating.
And then comes second overall choice Griffin, 18 years after Shuler.
For good measure, let’s even include the veteran quarterbacks who made their Redskins debuts in openers over the last 40 years. Johnson had a monster game against Dallas in 1999 but Washington blew a huge lead and lost in overtime, an omen of how his Redskins career would end in heartache just 16 months later. Mark Brunell (2004) and Donovan McNabb (2010) won their first Washington starts but with popgun passing games that would characterize their tenures.
No, I’m not ready to join those who bleed burgundy and gold and suggest that RGIII is bound for Canton after just one game. On the other hand, I was a history major and the record sure seems to say that when it comes to Redskins quarterbacks, first impressions have been very telling of what’s to come.
I’ve maintained for months that Griffin’s the real deal and that even if the Redskins went 6-10 this year, as I expected, they were headed in the right direction because of him. But maybe, just maybe, yesterday showed that with St. Louis, Cincinnati and Tampa Bay on tap for the rest of the month, the kid and his team will have a sweet September to remember before reality hits as the weather begins to turn.
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