ASHBURN, Va. – Many superlatives have been used to describe the enormous talent of rookie Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III. On Monday, wide receiver Josh Morgan offered perhaps the most unique.
That's right, Griffin makes one of his prized targets think of squeezing the Charmin. "His ball is like toilet paper," Morgan said, cupping his hands and looking up in the sky. "Remember 'Little Giants'? The ball gets there so soft. It's like catching a stack of pancakes. Effortless."
Effortless is perhaps the best word to describe Griffin (no offense to Morgan's excellent analogy). The No. 2 overall draft pick seems to move without effort, throw 70 yards without effort and handle the glare of rookie-dom without effort. When asked Monday if he felt any regret watching the Olympics when he had the track talent to get there himself, Griffin quickly said, "No, because then I wouldn't get to meet all you beautiful people."
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Effortless. But for the first time Thursday, Griffin will face NFL competition when the Redskins travel to Buffalo to face Mario Williams and the Bills in a preseason game. He was so swift and sure as a college quarterback that he hasn't faced the kind of defensive abuse a lot of quarterbacks encounter. And he's been so swift and sure with public attention – he was on the dean's list twice at Baylor – that he's hardly faced any negative media coverage.
That was underscored Monday when Griffin was asked a question after his weekly news conference. Another writer saw the beginning of a conversation and sidled over in the quarterback's direction. The Redskins cut off the interchange, with one rep repeating, "No one-on-ones!" The two reporters exchanged heated words while Griffin calmly walked away. It wasn't that the quarterback is unable to deal with questions; clearly he can. It's more that Griffin has been protected in a way that won't be possible any longer when the stadium lights come on.
There are subtle signs of difficulty ahead. The Redskins have thrown a ton of blitzes at Griffin in practice over the last several days, and Morgan said the quarterback has found the adjustment a bit of a struggle. When asked to define "struggle," Morgan laughed and said, "He's missed on one or two [throws]."
It's logical to expect him to struggle more. Griffin is in the same division as one of the toughest defensive units in football: the Giants' front four. The iconic image of this calendar year in the NFL is Patriots quarterback Tom Brady on his knees during the Super Bowl, completely deflated by Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora. These aren't the Washington Huskies Griffin will be facing, and Morgan will be lucky to receive any of those 70-yard flapjack stacks in snowbound battles. Instead, Griffin will be forced to choose between his two devastating weapons: his arm and his feet. Griffin said Monday he doesn't plan to run much on Thursday against the Bills, but that's easy to say at the podium and much harder to do in the split-second when a choice must be made between firing and fleeing. When asked if part of him is excited to get hit for the first time, Griffin said, "No not really. If I don't get hit in preseason, I'll be very OK with that."
This would all be no big deal if Griffin III was playing in almost any other NFL city. But Redskins practices are completely mobbed and everyone is looking for a glimpse of Griffin. He has signed a billion autographs, but even when he decides against it, fans chant for him and scream when he gives them a simple wave. One fan brought a Baylor helmet to practice Monday, and there have also been sightings of "RGIII" tattoos. All for a guy who hasn't played an NFL down. Fans show up to all NFL camps, but the Redskins had 24,000 people for Fan Appreciation Day, and they all appreciate Griffin more than any other player by far. He turns training camp into a state fair. And if he doesn't become the best Redskins quarterback since Doug Williams, the entire Beltway will be upset. "This is Baylor times 1,000 as far as the fans go," Griffin said. That's an understatement.
Cam Newton's shadow isn't helping. It's easy to compare the Panthers' sophomore with the Redskins' rookie, as both have incredible talent mixed with preternatural poise. Both won the Heisman trophy and did it with leadership as well as sick stats. But Newton was one of the best rookies in NFL history, and he had far less in the way of expectations. Griffin has been compared to John Elway and Steve Young. And, in his own words, he's "fine with it."
It's not fair to expect Griffin to be that good, even though he certainly has the ability. Newton had his rookie frustrations, to be sure, but Griffin said Monday he does not want to commit any "rookie mistakes" because he wants to hold himself to a veteran standard. "[I] just don't look at myself as a rookie and don't make it acceptable," he said. That's admirable, but is it realistic?
Head coach Mike Shanahan has a blunt answer for that: "I don't expect him to be realistic about it."
He went on: "You want them to be able to believe in themselves. You want them to have that arrogance like they are the best at what they do, and the great ones do have that confidence level."
Saturday night's Hall of Fame induction ceremony gave a stark example of what some head coaches do to test a high draft pick's confidence. Bill Parcells ran Curtis Martin seven straight times in his first preseason game with the Patriots. A running back is obviously different from a franchise quarterback, but it's clear Shanahan hasn't been brutal with Griffin. Monday, the quarterback walked off the practice field with his arm around the head coach.
Even the usual rookie hazing hasn't been taxing. Remember how Tim Tebow got a Friar Tuck haircut? Griffin had to sing The Temptations. That was it. (Kirk Cousins had to do a Mike Shanahan impersonation.) Griffin even admitted he hadn't seen tape of Buffalo's 23-0 drubbing of Washington last season. Coaches never showed it to him.
Cousins has been through the same preseason as Griffin, minus the hype. He's plainspoken about what it's been like: "It's a whole new language," he said Monday. "Everything is new. You have to be patient."
How patient can Griffin be – both in the pocket and in his mind? It's not that Griffin has no clue what he's in for. He does. But he also knows there's no way to fully prepare. "Guys are sitting in your lap in practice, because they stop," he said. "The offensive linemen know they're going to stop. The defensive linemen know they're going to stop. It's just precautionary to make sure that you don't hurt your quarterbacks, not just myself, but Rex [Grossman] and the other guys as well. You want to make sure you get through everything, but once it becomes live contact, guys are going to hit you. We'll see what happens."
Robert Griffin III has done everything right in his football career so far, from Baylor to the Heisman to the socks. There's no reason to think he won't live up to his NFL potential. But there is reason to think his NFL potential is many hits and losses away. Remember, it's been many years since a dual-threat quarterback has won a Super Bowl. So at some point in the next few weeks, Griffin's fans should expect the hard knocks to start and the pillowy softness to end.
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