ASHBURN, Va. – He is but 22 years old and playing for a team that was once 3-6, and this makes defining anything about Robert Griffin III tricky. How can one game create a legacy for a man who has already taken the Washington Redskins farther than anyone could have expected them to go?
But RG3 has pulled the Washington Redskins (9-6) into the biggest game of next weekend with the NFC East on the line. Win or risk no postseason. So even though he has changed perspectives on what a quarterback should be in the NFL, blending accuracy with world-class speed, he has thrust himself into a place where the result of Sunday's game against the Dallas Cowboys may shape the discussion around his name for years to come.
If the Redskins win, he will be the rookie quarterback who delivered Washington from a decade of desolation.
If the Redskins lose and miss the playoffs, the first whispers will rise about the quarterback who couldn't win the big one.
And neither will be exactly right, but that's how legacies get defined these days.
He is constantly compared to two men now. And even though these two other quarterbacks are in different situations, with arguably better weapons, the fact lingers that Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson are in the playoffs while Griffin's Redskins are not. So should Washington lose to Dallas and also fail to clinch a wild-card berth, the lasting memory of RG3 this year won't be of the quarterback who threw all those touchdown passes on Thanksgiving Day or beat the New York Giants on Monday night, but rather of a player who came close … just not close enough.
Griffin, named to the NFC Pro Bowl roster, walked into a Redskins Park auditorium Wednesday loaded with pressure. He looked at the row of television cameras all lined up in his honor and he made a clicking sound out of the corner of his mouth the way an old-time movie gangster might have done.
It wasn't a cocky noise but nonetheless a confident one; a brazen way of saying none of this bothers him. It's the way with which he has approached everything in the last 13 months – from winning the Heisman to being the second pick in the NFL draft to fighting through a season that looked like a disaster. He was asked about the upcoming game and how it might shape the early legacy of his career and he shrugged.
"When you play well in the big games people tend to write nice things about you," he said.
Nobody should understand that better than the other quarterback in Sunday's game. Dallas' Tony Romo was once the next great thing. He soared from obscurity to be in charge of one of the league's most potent offenses. He had dimples and a celebrity girlfriend. He had thousands of passing yards and made magazine covers. Now he finds himself needing to prevail lest his reputation as a big-game failure grows.
"You're usually defined by winning or losing," Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said on Wednesday.
In a season where two other rookie quarterbacks have been brilliant, RG3 has been a little better. Luck might have more yards and late victories and Wilson does have more touchdown passes, but Griffin leads in other significant categories like passer rating, completion percentage and fewest interceptions. His 752 rushing yards dwarf the others. And given the way Griffin's receivers dropped balls the first half of the season and, how long it took for the offensive line to bond and the new offense to stick, it is clear he is the best of not only the rookies but maybe anyone short of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers.
And yet will any of these numbers matter if the Redskins miss the postseason? Will the memories left by rookie quarterbacks be of Luck delivering one more comeback victory in the first round of the playoffs? Or of Wilson scrambling and scrambling, finding one more receiver for one more touchdown in a season where Seattle has scored 150 points in its past three games?
RG3 laughed at the idea on Wednesday. What good is a legacy written at the end of his first season if he comes back next year and leads the Redskins to a Super Bowl?
But there's also a sense that we are seeing the best of RG3 now. While he has dazzled for much of this first season, he has also been knocked out of games twice. He can't continue to be the player he has been these last few months. His speed makes him impossible to predict. Defenses freeze, unsure if he is going to run or throw and in that moment of hesitation. The result is normally a perfect throw past the uncertain defender or him racing past the late-reaching hands. And yet his running ability makes him vulnerable. At some point soon he will probably have to be less or a runner and more of a passer.
Which means he might be at his greatest.
And so in a year of big things for RG3, nothing might be more important than how he plays in the biggest game of the season.
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