NEW ORLEANS – It was but one moment of a football game, the kind of thing barely caught by television cameras yet noticed by the men in shoulder pads who stood along the sideline. And it might be the instance Robert Griffin III forever endeared himself to the Washington Redskins.
This was a block. A rolling, tumbling, body-smacking block thrown ahead of Redskins running back Alfred Morris and it was set by the man who should be the most precious player on the team. The new starting quarterback. The second pick in the NFL draft. RG3.
He made it on the far sideline, on New Orleans Saints safety Roman Harper. "Cut him," Griffin later said in describing the play. And Harper appeared to take exception to being cut by the rookie quarterback with enough hype to fill the Superdome, so he shoved Griffin back to the turf. Then they stood up and had one of those facemask-to-facemask standoffs in which football players like to engage.
"It shows he's a football player," Redskins linebacker London Fletcher told Yahoo! Sports. "That block says he's willing to sacrifice himself for the team."
This is the thing about RG3, the reason Washington coach Mike Shanahan lusted for him enough that the club traded three first-round picks to get him. You don't just get a quarterback, someone cut from a clay mold of quarterbacks who stands dutifully behind the line of scrimmage flinging passes to his receivers.
You get a player who wants to run with the ball in his hand. You get a player who doesn't just want to slide to a stop at the feet of a tackler, but who wants to ram his body into the defender's shoulder, pushing for an extra two yards. You get a man who won't be intimidated by the roar that 72,180 can make in the Superdome. And you get a man who will sprint ahead of his running back, take out one of the Saints' best defensive players and stand tall when that player screams in his face.
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"Usually quarterbacks get in the way of somebody and say they tried to block someone," Fletcher said.
Instead, on the day RG3 announced himself to the NFL as the lead candidate for Best Young Quarterback in the Game, he made a football block in a football contest in front of football players. It's the kind of thing teammates don't forget.
His debut crushed those of the other four anointed rookies who are all supposed to be climbing the same learning mountain. His 320 yards could have been more had the Redskins not tried to run late in hopes of running down the clock. His two touchdowns were beautiful, especially the 88-yard pass to Pierre Garcon that became his first NFL score. His 139.9 passer rating was astounding. He completed 19 of his 26 passes, including his first eight. He ran for 42 yards.
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Nobody his age was doing this on Sunday. The closest thing was Andrew Luck's 309 passing yards which came on 41 attempts and were mostly accumulated in the second half when it was clear the Colts were going to lose.
It will be hard to find a better start from a rookie quarterback ever. This includes Cam Newton, who threw for over 400 yards in a game he lost at Arizona. Griffin seemed to control the Saints on Sunday, methodically moving the Redskins against an aggressive defense in what might be the hardest NFL stadium for an opponent. Washington had the ball nearly twice as long as New Orleans. Nobody does this in the Superdome, certainly not a rookie making his first start on the first game of the year.
And so what did Griffin say after all this was done, as he stood there at a lectern while holding the ball from his first touchdown pass in his hand?
"It was a lot of fun out there," he said.
At times it looked like he was toying with the Saints, who came into this game still simmering over the suspensions to coach Sean Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis and others in the league's bounty investigation (player suspensions were vacated Friday). The Saints promised to be mad. They said they were going to be aggressive. And they were. But Griffin calmly threw over their blitzes and outran the occasional pass rusher who reached him.
"Just to execute the offense in this environment …" Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said.
Then the coach, being a coach, tried to find fault with little things. He pointed out that Griffin stumbled a couple of times as he pulled away from the line of scrimmage. He said: "At times [RG3] was a little off."
But that was like trying to find a broken brush stroke in a Picasso. In a game when Washington needed to move the game at its pace, keeping the Saints and Drew Brees off the field as much as possible, Griffin did that. He didn't push too much. He threw a lot of early screens to counter the fact that the Saints took away the Redskins' run.
He later said he wanted to be focused. He told how he left his phone back at his Virginia home on purpose. He said he sat in his hotel room here, watching television and thinking about the game he was about to play. He said he didn't want to stress.
Quietly the Redskins could be a surprise this year. As Fletcher walked across the Superdome field to the team bus on Sunday afternoon, he said this team is different than the other Washington teams he has been around. This one actually cut good players, he said. This is new. Never before had such talent, including running back Tim Hightower and tight end Chris Cooley, been tossed out so close before the season opener. He sees it as a sign that the Redskins are finally becoming good.
And the biggest piece is the newest one; the quarterback whose quick passes tore apart the Saints' defense. The quarterback who wasn't afraid to come into the Superdome and win in his first NFL game. The quarterback who dropped his shoulder and took out Harper.
The quarterback who then met Harper's icy glare and didn't step back.
"After this game they told me I'm not a rookie anymore," said Griffin, nodding across the hall toward the area where the Redskins dressed.
He's the reason they suddenly think they can win.
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