Seventy years ago, an incredibly gifted two-sport athlete from Texas arrived in Washington to quarterback the Redskins. Since the NFL didn’t expand to the Lone Star State until eight years after Hall of Famer/minor league pitcher Sammy Baugh retired, he never got to play at home.
His successor three quarters of a century later, Robert Griffin III, gets the chance Thursday in just his 11th pro game. And Griffin, a one-time Olympic Trials hurdler, will do so on a big regular season stage, the Cowboys’ now-annual Thanksgiving game.
“It will be fun,” said the 22-year-old from Copperas Cove, Tex., less than a three-hour drive from Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. “I get to see a lot of familiar faces. A lot of fans told me they pay attention to the Redskins now because I’m the quarterback here. But I’m a Texas kid, so it’ll be fun to see the kind of reception I get.”
Not that Griffin expects to be booed in the stadium where he twice quarterbacked Baylor past Texas Tech.
“It will definitely be a good homecoming,” Griffin said. “I had some friends that were big Cowboys fans. They told me they’ll be cheering for me, but they still want their guys to win. I guess I can accept that, but we still have to go out and get the victory. It’s just about playing on the big stage, playing at a high level.”
The 2011 Heisman Trophy winner certainly did that in his most hyped game to this point, completing 19 of 26 passes for 320 yards – second-most ever by a rookie — and two touchdowns while rushing nine times for 42 yards as Washington stunned New Orleans 40-32 in his debut in his parents’ hometown. His 139.9 passer rating was a rookie record.
Griffin was actually better in last Sunday’s 31-6 thrashing of NFC East rival Philadelphia that ended Washington’s three-game losing streak. He completed 14 of 15 passes – missing only when he threw inside and receiver Josh Morgan cut outside — for 200 yards and four touchdowns for a perfect 158.3 passer rating while carrying 12 times for 84 yards.
But Thursday, Griffin will be asked to do something that he has never done before: play a second game in five days against another division foe, one whom the Redskins can tie in the standings with a victory.
“We have to make sure that we take advantage of the time that we have to master the system [the coaches] put in this week,” Griffin said. “That’s probably the toughest part. Guys get beat up on Sundays … and they got to go out there on Thursday without very much rest. We’ll see how tough our team is. I feel fine. We didn’t have very many plays in the first half [against the Eagles] so I took most of my hits in the second half. I didn’t have any clear-shot, brutal hits. I protect myself better [than I did early in the season]. I feel really good, ready to go.”
Redskins Super Bowl quarterbacks Billy Kilmer, Joe Theismann and Mark Rypien all came up short in Thanksgiving on Dallas, but Griffin is young enough to look at the circumstances as a positive, just as he did the bye week that followed Washington’s three-game skid.
“When you’re 22 years old, compared to a little bit older, the body recovers a lot quicker,” said Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, who was 2-0 at Dallas on Thanksgiving while with Denver.
“Guys came back with fresh legs, fresh minds,” Griffin said. “I just thought that there was a vibe that we were going to go out there and click. There were a few things that I needed to say. It wasn’t because they voted me captain. There are just things that as a quarterback, you have to say to your team. And we went out and dominated. I haven’t seen this team play that physical as we did last Sunday. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but there was a certain tenacity, a certain attitude that was brought to the game. You could feel it. That’s the kind of mindset you have to bring every game.”
If Griffin leads the Redskins to their first Thanksgiving victory in Dallas in seven tries, his blossoming legend in Washington will keep growing.
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