RICHMOND, Va. – The thing to understand about Robert Griffin III is that no matter how many years he plays, or division titles he wins or touchdowns he throws, he'll always have a chip on his shoulder.
You might think after winning the Heisman Trophy and dominating the NFL his rookie season the chip would have disappeared. You might think by now the Washington Redskins quarterback doesn't need to soak up criticism and let it all settle over his body like some cloak of fury. You might think success would bring him to a quieter place.
And yet on Wednesday afternoon, he balanced on his rebuilt knee in his team's first training camp press conference and talked about the fire he can't extinguish.
The topic was the tests he took for James Andrews, the doctor who repaired his knee back in the winter. He told of how Andrews approved him to play last week and yet the team insisted on a test of its own, administered before camp so the coaches were sure he was ready to practice. And the more he spoke, the more you could feel his words go hard.
"Once I passed [Andrews' tests] I was pretty confident, but I had to come back and work out with the coaches so they felt comfortable with it," he said. "And that's what I will be doing the next four or five weeks – continually trying to prove to everybody that I'm ready to go. I don't shy away from that. I know I will be criticized for that but I guess that's what you guys are supposed to do."
What RG3 thinks he is going to be criticized for is hard to figure. No one around the Redskins organization doubts his health. The players watched him race through the team's conditioning test on Wednesday and knew immediately he was fine. "I wasn't surprised," tackle Trent Williams said. "In [organized team activities], he looked cleared [to play] to me."
Still, RG3 made sure to tweet the fact that Andrews cleared him before the team was ready to make the same declaration lest anyone hold him back. Even as Griffin smiles and says he will be more careful and avoid contact, he continually talks about the things people think he can't do.
There is nothing wrong with this, of course. There is nothing wrong with the great athlete who listens for the lone boo in a standing ovation or seeks the one doubting look in a coach's eye. Michael Jordan turned himself into the greatest basketball player ever by hunting for the stray hint of derision in an opponent's laudatory quotes. Maybe it was a stray word, or a phrase, or a sentence in an otherwise innocuous statement that ignited the furnace, allowing him to drop an extra 15 points the next game.
The more we see of RG3, the more we understand the anger that lurks behind the smile.
The first time I met him, we weren't 10 minutes into the conversation when he brought up the fact that current San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh recruited both Griffin and Andrew Luck to play together at Stanford. Apparently the idea was to rotate them, with Luck playing a more traditional offense and Griffin coming in for more mobile plays. Even then, Griffin sensed the idea was a bad one, understanding there can only be one winner in such an arrangement.
"I'm not saying who would have left because there is no telling who would have left," he said, leaving clear that he believed very much that he would've beaten out Luck.
So even as Griffin said several times on Wednesday that he is going to change, that he will slide two yards short of a first down to avoid a tackle, it's hard to imagine him doing that on a raw November Sunday. He will always have something to prove, a point to make.
And this is what we should love about RG3. It is obvious now that the fire is going to burn regardless – slights will gnaw at him and spoken doubts will tear him apart. Much like Jordan, he is going to find an insult in anything, even a running test requested by his coaches who want to verify for themselves what Andrews had already said.
He has never fully addressed his relationship with his coach Mike Shanahan, leaving open the idea that he was not happy with decisions that were made, whether it was his role in the offense or remaining in the playoff game against Seattle when it was clear his knee was severely damaged.
"We all made mistakes last season and we all understand that," he said. "Now we are moving forward."
Then he smiled.
And something more burned behind the grin.
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