by David Elfin

Today is the opening of the NFL’s free agent marketplace, the start of the 20th offseason in which teams signing players have to fit them under a salary cap.

Given the $18 million (15 percent of the $123 million limit) punishment levied by the NFL for alleged cap improprieties in 2010, the Redskins can’t be their usual spendthrift selves this time around.

But even if Washington somehow lands possible starters at safety and cornerback – its biggest needs – none of them will affect the franchise as did the move that became official a year ago today.

I’m talking, obviously, about the trade with St. Louis for the second overall draft pick that everyone knew was going to become quarterback Robert Griffin III six weeks later.

Before Griffin’s arrival became assured, the Redskins were looking at turnover king Rex Grossman remaining as their quarterback or replacing him with another retread type.

Instead, Griffin proved to be even better than hoped, on and off the field. His outgoing nature and determined work ethic quickly won over his veteran teammates, who would vote him a co-captain in November. His sunny personality and easy manner quickly made the 22-year-old from Copperas Cove, Tex. via Baylor the most popular athlete in a market that already boasted first overall selections Alex Ovechkin, Stephen Strasburg and John Wall and welcomed another, Bryce Harper, the same week that Griffin was drafted.

Photos: Redskins Cheerleaders

What really mattered, of course, was that Griffin played so marvelously.

The 2011 Heisman Trophy winner debuted by passing for 320 yards, two touchdowns and a rookie-record 139.9 rating in leading the Redskins to an upset of the Saints in New Orleans, where he had spent a decent chunk of his childhood.

In Week 6, Griffin ran for two touchdowns, including a 76-yard dash that was the longest by a quarterback in 15 years. He would have pulled off a spectacular comeback in Week 7 at New York if the defense hadn’t folded on its final series against the Giants.

With the Redskins coming out of their bye at 3-6, Griffin took their season on his shoulders and delivered eight touchdown passes with just one interception in victories over NFC East foes Philadelphia and Dallas, the latter on Thanksgiving on national television against Washington’s most bitter rival and the team for whom most of his friends cheer.

Griffin was voted the Offensive Rookie of the Year after finishing as the league’s third-ranked passer and the most prolific rookie quarterback rusher in NFL history.

More important, Griffin led the Redskins, 17-39 in the three and a half seasons immediately before his arrival, to their first playoff berth since 2007 and their first NFC East title since 1999. And he staked them to a 14-0 lead in their first home playoff game in 13 years until his injured right knee – one that would require surgery three days later – left him a one-legged man and hastened the end of his remarkable season and theirs.

As Griffin continues to rehab his knee with his eye on being back in time for Washington’s opener during the first weekend of September and resuming a career that’s more promising than any Redskins quarterback’s since Joe Theismann 35 years ago, it’s enlightening to remember how much he has changed the direction of the franchise.

New quarterback Brad Johnson and promoted running back Stephen Davis teamed to power the Redskins to their first playoff spot in six years in 1999, but Washington had won six of its final nine games in 1998 and had finished 8-7-1 in 1997.

For all that Joe Gibbs achieved during his first 12-year tenure in Washington – three Super Bowl trophies, four NFC championships and eight playoff berths – the Hall of Fame coach lost his first five games during his 1981 debut and finished that first season in command at 8-8.

The last person to affect as huge an immediate change on the Redskins as Griffin was late Hall of Fame coach George Allen, who started 5-0 after his 1971 hiring en route to guiding the team to its first postseason appearance in 26 years.

Nothing the Redskins do in free agency in 2013 will measure up to the importance of the trade that became official a year ago today.

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 three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin


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