ARLINGTON, Texas – The stuff that makes Robert Griffin III magical is coming back.
It's just that the magic itself is missing.
Last season, the Washington Redskins' quarterback came here to his home state on Thanksgiving and throttled the Dallas Cowboys with an array of dazzling scoring plays. He was a blur in a burgundy helmet, throwing four touchdowns and bringing home the franchise's first holiday win in Dallas in 80 seasons. It seemed, at times, like he was the only star playing on the field with the star painted on the field.
Sunday night, Griffin was alone in a different way: sitting at his locker, hunched over his cell phone, shaking his head in disappointment after a 31-16 loss to the Cowboys. The Redskins were 0 for 3 in the red zone, and the only big scoring play was a run from Alfred Morris. That made it close, but the question in the fourth quarter was less about whether Griffin would find a way to win and more about whether Tony Romo would find a way to lose.
Griffin came up with his own answers when there weren't any as a rookie. Now his team has come off a bye week to lose its fourth of five games and there are no answers.
"All you do is feel disgusted," said Redskins wide receiver Santana Moss. "We're not finishing the job, plain and simple."
And why is that?
"If I knew, I would tell you," the receiver replied.
Moss soon came to an unsatisfying conclusion: "We just ain't making plays." Asked if he felt he was getting the opportunity to make plays, he shrugged. "When my number is called, I'll be ready."
Making plays was not a problem for Griffin last season, and that gave the Redskins hope when they were down in games and also when they were three games under .500 as they are now. Griffin had somehow mastered the comeback in his first season, leading Washington to a division title, and now the only win in 2013 is against the Oakland Raiders.
"We're close on offense," Griffin said. "But close doesn't do it in this league."
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Griffin himself is close to his old physical self after his offseason knee surgery. He went without the leg brace in warmups for the first time Sunday, and he looked fresh for the most part and explosive in some instances. Orthopedic surgeons say it can take a year for a repaired knee to feel completely sound underneath an athlete, and Griffin is coming up on 10 months.
So is it just a matter of time before Griffin leads his team to a string of victories again? Or have defenses figured something out? In San Francisco, the 49ers are mounting victories despite the relative struggles of their young dynamic passer. Colin Kaepernick just doesn't look unstoppable. He hasn't all season. Like Griffin, Kaepernick is being hit often. Like Griffin, Kaepernick looks a split-second slow.
Griffin had some impressive scrambles Sunday, yet the game-turning play never happened. And if you're playing against a quarterback who can run and throw the deep ball, you want him to run every single time. That's especially so when there's been so much (justifiable) pressure on Griffin to slide or get out of bounds. He did both on Sunday, and even drew personal foul penalties for late hits, but personal foul penalties aren't usually back-breakers.
"Some guys in the league are going to do that," Griffin said. "They kind of view that hit on the QB as worth the 15 yards."
Then there are the hits that are worth more than that, like the sack on Griffin at his own 1-yard-line. He lost the ball and the Cowboys punched it in a play later. It was the ground-bound version of a pick six. Griffin couldn't compensate for even that play, as he threw no touchdowns.
His team's 400-plus yards of total offense Sunday shows the magician is on his way back. The easy question is, "How long before he's all the way back?" The hard question is, "How do you define 'all the way back'?" He's good enough to win any particular game, but what about a home game against the Chicago Bears or a road game against the Denver Broncos? Those games come next, and two losses would mean 1-6.
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The defensive depth in D.C. is suspect. The offensive talent isn't overwhelming. Washington needs some magic, and there's only one person who can provide that.