Sunday will be only Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III’s eighth NFL game, but it will be the sixth in which the second overall pick in April’s draft will be opposed by a fellow first-round selection. This time it will be Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, the 11th choice in 2004.
That’s the way of the world in today’s NFL. As recently as 1999 (the undrafted Kurt Warner), 2002 (ninth-rounder Brad Johnson) and 2001-03-04 (sixth-rounder Tom Brady) quarterbacks who had been overlooked in the draft directed their teams to Super Bowl victories. However, six of the past seven titles have won by first-round quarterbacks Roethlisberger (two), Eli Manning (two), Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning. The exception was Drew Brees, hardly overlooked as the first choice in the second round.
Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, who won two Super Bowls with first-round quarterback John Elway in Denver, knows that history very well. It was a big reason why Shanahan gave St. Louis three first-rounders and a second-rounder for the right to move up four spots and take Griffin and why he hasn’t regretted the trade since, especially not as his 22-year-old rookie heads to mid-season as the NFL’s third-ranked passer behind Rodgers and Eli Manning. Griffin leads the league in completion percentage and yards-per-pass (as well as yards per-carry).
After Griffin nearly beat Manning and the defending Super Bowl champions in their stadium last Sunday, converting a 4th-and-10 situation before running for 24 yards and then lofting a gorgeous 30-yard touchdown throw to give the Redskins the lead with just 92 seconds left, New York’s standout defensive ends couldn’t stop raving.
“That’s the best quarterback we’ve played this year,” said Osi Umenyiora, whose Giants had already faced Pro Bowl veterans Michael Vick and Tony Romo and 2011 record-breaking rookie Cam Newton.
“I’m pretty mad at the football gods for putting him in the NFC East,” added Justin Tuck. “To face that guy twice a year is going to be a headache. He takes away from your enthusiasm for the game when you play a play perfectly and he still has 4.3 speed [to get around you].”
Roethlisberger doesn’t have world-class speed, but he had a world-class defense and running game when he went 14-0 as a rookie in 2004 before coming up short in the AFC Championship Game.
“I was very fortunate,” Roethlisberger said. “I played on a very good team. I just had to go out and try and just win games and didn’t have to try to put up big numbers. It was just trying not to do too much.”
With presumed No. 1 receiver Pierre Garcon very likely to miss to make it 23 of 32 quarters absent on Sunday and with top tight end Fred Davis having been lost for the season, there certainly could be pressure on Griffin to do too much, especially given Washington’s 29th-ranked defense. But Shanahan and his kid quarterback deny that will be the case.
“I don’t feel that burden,” Griffin said. “The guys have come to me numerous times and told me [not to] feel like I have to do more than what I’m doing right now; just go out and continue to execute the offense, do what the coaches ask me to do. You can’t replace Pierre or Fred. You’ve just got to find guys that can step up … and be successful with you.”
Minus Garcon again and having lost Davis 2:31 into the Giants’ game, Griffin still completed 20 of 28 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns to veteran receiver Santana Moss while running nine times for 89 yards. Griffin’s most amazing play was on the 4th-and-10 where he scrambled for seemingly a minute before finally finding likely new starting tight end Logan Paulsen for 19 yards. Paulsen had just 13 catches in 33 career games before Davis went down, but Griffin made him look an old reliable. No wonder Shanahan believes that his quarterback isn’t feeling any burden.
“If it has, he’s handled it pretty good, don’t you think?” Shanahan said. “That’s all you can ask. He’s handled it as good as a rookie could possibly handle it.”
As for Griffin’s 3-4 record with formidable foes Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Philadelphia (twice), Dallas (twice) and the Giants (again) still ahead, Manning was 1-6 as a rookie. Minnesota’s Christian Ponder was 1-9. Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman was 3-6. St. Louis’ Sam Bradford was 7-9. And while Atlanta’s Matt Ryan was 11-5, his 87.7 passer rating pales compared to Griffin’s current 101.8, which tops Roethlisberger’s 98.1, the rookie record. With a 70.4 completion percentage, Griffin’s also on track to top Roethlisberger’s 66.4 rookie record in that statistic.
“I still think you have to give a guy, a quarterback especially, more than just one year to see what he can really do and see if he’s going to be an elite guy,” said Roethlisberger, perhaps thinking about Newton’s less impressive second season. “If [Robert] continues at this level for the rest of the year and into next year and maybe even into year three, then you know what? I guess he was primed and ready in college.”
Sure seems that way to me. Which is why I advocated for the Redskins to acquire Griffin almost as soon as last season ended. It’s near-impossible to win in today’s quarterback-centric NFL without a standout performer at that position. And for the first time in more than a decade, and arguably in a generation, Washington has one.
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