NEW YORK – About 90 minutes before the NFL draft, Robert Griffin III, wearing a snazzy light blue, almost purple suit, was led down 51st Street by NFL staff to a side entrance of Radio City Music Hall.
He came upon two men dressed toe-to-hat in Baylor Bears gear and one reached out, shook their hero’s hand and thanked him for all he’d done for the program.
“Thanks,” Griffin said. “Great to see you.”
At that moment a man screamed down the block at Griffin, “Washington Redskins. Washington Redskins.” – the team that would draft Griffin second overall. This was not calm. This was not polite. This was an over-the-top outburst of excitement, NFL-style. Griffin smiled and kept walking.
Here was a man in the middle of a transition, from thankful, low-key college fans happy he could do anything for their low-expectations program to the huge hype of a star athlete expected to transform a professional franchise overnight.
Thursday was a great night for Griffin and the fellow quarterback that went one ahead of him, Stanford’s Andrew Luck. The Indianapolis Colts took Luck to start off a night of smiles and hugs and celebrations of making it this far in life.
"A lot of excited laughing," Luck said.
And now the pressure begins.
Luck is merely expected to be the next Peyton Manning in Indy, and while he may be afforded a season or so of a honeymoon, taking over for a beloved, iconic four-time MVP is no small task.
“Peyton Manning is arguably the greatest ever,” Luck said. “He was my football hero growing up. You don’t really replace a guy like that. Those shoes are huge to fill. I’ll put my best foot forward, work hard every day, and if I can ever be mentioned with Peyton Manning, that’d be a football dream come true.
“I’m not going to start comparing myself to Peyton Manning because I haven’t done squat in the NFL.”
Griffin has no such immediate comparison, but a world of pressure, nonetheless. Washington traded three first-round picks (2012, 2013, 2014) and a second-rounder (2012) to St. Louis to draft Griffin, essentially putting the entire franchise on his back and declaring him equal to or better than four men. He better be good because he isn’t going to get a lot of help from the top of the draft the next few years.
“There have been great quarterbacks that have had terrible rookie years,” Griffin said. “I don’t want to be that guy.”
He’ll also step into the NFC East, which, despite featuring the Super Bowl champion Giants, remains competitive for the Redskins. New York went just 9-7 after all and lost twice to Washington. “We’ve got a lot of weapons,” Griffin said.
The fans are salivating. Griffin said he thinks that anticipation is a bigger deal than the fact the Redskins traded so much to get him.
“That goes along with the excitement with the fans,” he said. “I think the excitement it’s just with who is going to play quarterback, it’s the team that they are going to have.”
Oh, and both men are following Cam Newton, last year’s top pick who entered the league with many more doubters, critics and questions than either of them. He merely went on to deliver 4,051 yards passing and 35 touchdowns (21 throwing) for the Carolina Panthers.
“I’m not going to get too caught up in being compared to another guy,” Luck said. “Everybody is different, and when you start getting too involved in what someone did last year or two years ago, you may not be able to put your effort in the right place.”
Perhaps most interesting, neither Luck nor Griffin are used to such expectations of success. Each came out of Texas high schools to sign with programs unaccustomed to victory. Luck went to Stanford, which was coming off a 4-8 season, its sixth consecutive losing campaign. Griffin went to Baylor, which was 3-9 and hadn’t been to a bowl game since 1994.
They helped transform their schools and developed into tantalizing prospects. Both possess Newton-level athletic ability and strong arms, Luck in particular.
About the only unanswered question is whether they can walk into places where much is expected, especially of them, and deliver to the enormous potential. In temperament and tenacity, they look capable. The two will be linked forever, 1-2 as quarterbacks in a draft, the way Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf have been connected all these years. It’s happened just four times since the league went with the common draft in 1967. There was 1971 (Jim Plunkett, Archie Manning, Dan Pastorini), 1993 (Drew Bledsoe, Rick Mirer), 1998 (Manning, Leaf) and 1999 (Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, Akili Smith).
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They’ll be compared to each other – and their teams meet in the third week of preseason. They’ll be compared to Newton. Mostly, they’ll be expected to produce victories faster than quarterbacks were in the past.
“You don’t play against other quarterbacks in this league,” Griffin said. “You’ll always be compared, but you play defenses.”
These are the two sure bets of the draft. There were no debates. There have been few doubts.
Those happy-go-lucky, thanks-for-making-us-relevant college days are gone. This is the NFL now. Big league, big things expected.
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