LANDOVER, Md. – At the end, Robert Griffin III was still fighting, running across the FedEx Field turf, flinging hope when the scoreboard clock said hope was all but dead. He lobbed a pass to the back of the end zone, a heave not with power but the right amount of loft, too high for a Philadelphia Eagles defender but one that landed perfectly into the arms of receiver Leonard Hankerson.
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Even though it was an empty touchdown on a hopeless night, it might have been one of his finest moments as a Washington Redskin.
He would not win his first game back after Dr. James Andrews' scalpel tore into his right knee back on Jan. 9. He had done too much wrong in the first 2½ quarters for that. He probably shouldn't have been on the field Monday night. Not this soon. Not after missing the entire preseason. He wasn't ready. The team behind him was out of sync in large part because it hadn't played a game with him since last season's playoffs.
But if nothing, RG3 loves a doubting world. He thrives on criticisms – real or imagined. He told the world he was "All in for Week 1." And so even if his leg wouldn't let him run like he was used to, or his passes weren't true and his pitches to running back Alfred Morris weren't in the right place, he would fight.
His 329 yards passing in a 33-27 defeat might have been his greatest performance yet in the NFL because this time it wasn't done with a gimmick that caught the rest of the league unprepared. This time he couldn't sprint as he used to, faking linebackers for an extra 10 yards, the way he did last season. The old tricks were gone. He looked uncomfortable. His feet seemed unsettled. He would have to pull the Redskins back with his arm.
And he nearly did it.
"We almost won that game," running back Roy Helu, Jr. said.
Which is something nobody thought possible in the worst first half of Griffin's short NFL career.
There is little doubt he pinned the Redskins and coach Mike Shanahan in a corner with his Adidas commercial not long after his surgery in which he vowed to return for this first game. It set up a foolish expectation that he had to be on the field Monday night or somehow the days and days of intense rehabilitation on the knee was worthless.
The commercial gave him a goal. It drove him through an offseason program, first at Andrews' clinic in Florida and then at Redskins training camp, that was more intense than anything almost anyone had seen. For comparison, his workout partner in Florida was San Francisco 49ers running back Marcus Lattimore, who tore up his knee three months before Griffin, required a complete reconstruction just like RG3 and has being held out of games until October, roughly a year after his injury.
Maybe Griffin would have been better off waiting an extra month. But waiting was never an option. Neither was a sloppy first half with two interceptions, some badly under-thrown passes and a pitch to Morris in the end zone that looked wrong from the moment he flicked it.
Last year's Griffin almost never threw passes like he did on Monday. Last year's Griffin would have avoided the Eagles' pass rushers who sacked him three times. Yet this wasn't last year's Griffin. The Redskins barely called the read option, which had worked so well for him last year though it was unclear if Shanahan did this out of concern for Griffin's leg or because of things the Eagles showed defensively to drive it from the gameplan.
Just because Washington didn't win doesn't mean RG3 somehow failed. The Redskins lost because they fell behind too far too fast. The score was 33-7 before Griffin found himself. His 53 passing yards in the first half were replaced with 276 in the second. He all but threw Washington to a most improbable victory. And that should be the takeaway from Monday night – not the terrible start or the knee that still seems to hamper him or timing that was off.
He somehow pulled the Redskins back into a game they were destined to lose. He took them to within an onside kick of a comeback they would be talking about around here for years.
Later, he refused to blame "rust" or the lack of preseason game, despite the fact he had lobbied to play in the preseason. He said those things were "excuses."
"You know you don't want your team to come out in the second half and fold," he said.
On a game he probably shouldn't have played, unable to run free like he did last year, RG3 nonetheless nearly won a game the Redskins should have lost by a lot. And that might be the best piece of his legend yet.