Tonight, the New York Giants will play the Redskins in Washington in what will almost certainly be the NFL’s highest-rated game of the regular season. But the main attraction won’t be the defending Super Bowl champions and their two-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback, Eli Manning. The focus will be on a 22-year-old who has played just 11 games of professional football and whose team does not have a winning record.
Robert Griffin III may be the most spectacular rookie in American sports history. He is certainly the richest, having earned more money from endorsements before taking a single pro snap than any other first-year player. If you had lunch at Subway, sipped Gatorade, or bought Adidas shoes or socks (he wore Superman socks when he received the Heisman Trophy last December), it may have been because he seduced you. His No. 10 jersey—with Griffin III on the back, making him the first football player to wear Roman numerals—is already the league’s biggest seller. Before the season is over, Griffin may well surpass LeBron James as the most popular name in sports merchandise.
All he has to do now is win something.
Football history is littered with players who, like RG3, won the Heisman Trophy but never made a dent in the pros. John Huarte, Andre Ware, Danny Wuerffel, Matt Leinart, Gino Torretta, Charlie Ward, Troy Smith—if you don’t recognize their names, that’s the point.
Already, Griffin has had more NFL success than all of them combined. On Sept. 9, Griffin debuted as a pro by passing for 326 yards and running for 42 more, beating the New Orleans Saints and become the first rookie ever to be named the NFC’s Offensive Player of the Week. He won his second such honor in week 11, when he passed for four touchdowns against the Eagles on his way to a 31-6 victory.
The Redskins’ brain trust, beginning with head coach Mike Shanahan and his son Kyle, Washington’s offensive coordinator, do a thorough scouting of each team’s defensive strengths and weaknesses and call the plays, so that RG3’s primary function is to carry out the team’s plan. Despite his powerful and accurate arm, Griffin has thrown just 304 passes, the fewest of any starting quarterback this year who’s started most of his teams’ games, and seldom is forced into longer, riskier throws.
Still, he can improvise when needed. Most of his runs from the pocket are on sprints around end, where he can run out of bounds rather than burst up the middle, where he could have his career ended by some frustrated linebacker taking a cheap shot at his knees.
He learned his lesson the hard way on Oct. 7 against the Atlanta Falcons when Sean Weatherspoon nailed him for a concussion.—a “light’ one, said the team doctors, but a light concussion is still a concussion. The Redskins lost 24-17. He still runs out of the pocket, but now he picks his spots more judiciously. On Oct. 13 he made the most spectacular play of the season, running 76 yards for a TD and a 38-26 win over the Minnesota Vikings.
“What he’s learning,” says Mike Shanahan, who came to Washington in 2012 after 14 years with Denver, “is to use his legs less for yardage and more for buying time to set up a pass, to enable his receivers to break free.”
The strategy has paid off brilliantly: Griffin has learned to step forward into the pocket to evade pass rushers and hit his receivers on the run, in full stride. He has thrown 16 touchdowns against just 4 interceptions, and in the most important passing stat, yards-per-throw, he has averaged a whopping 8.21, well ahead of far more experienced passers such as Peyton Manning (7.83), Tom Brady (7.69), Aaron Rodgers (7.55).and Eli Manning (7.34).
Already, he much resembles his idol, John Elway, who was regarded as the most athletic quarterback of his time, and who also flourished under Shanahan. Sportswriters who saw them both are fond of comparing Griffin’s physical gifts with Elway. Both men were a shade over 6'-2" and played at around 220 pounds.
But Elway, who played his first year of professional ball in 1983, didn’t get to work with Shanahan until 1995, when he was 35. The duo won back-to-back Super Bowls at the end of the 1997 and 1998 seasons, with Elway retiring after his second championship win. Griffin gets to work with one of the league’s best quarterback handlers in his first season, and he’s getting as thorough an education as any young passer could hope for.
“Every time I see him play,” says Shanahan, “he shows me something new. I keep thinking of new ways to use him, new plays to devise for him. It’s almost scary to see how fast he’s learning. I’ve never seen anyone this young this good.”
A third Super Bowl ring for Shanahan would make him a surefire Hall of Famer, but it’s doubtful that he, RG3, and the Skins are going to even make the playoffs this year. They’re 5-6 going into tonight’s game, and even a victory over the Giants would leave them a long shot for the postseason, let alone the Super Bowl. Still, the five wins Griffin has already engineered are as many as the Skins had all of last season. And if they win tonight, they’ll have the same 6-6 record that last year’s Super Bowl champs, the Giants, had after their first 12 games.
With Griffin, the Redskins are competitive with anyone, and anything is possible. If—or should we say when?—RG3 gets a Super Bowl ring, his future will be so bright we’re going to need shades to watch him play.