THREE DAYS before Robert Griffin III took his first NFL snap, in a preseason game against the Bills, the rookie quarterback walked off the Redskins' practice field in Ashburn, Va., to a deafening roar. So raucous were the few thousand fans in attendance that their cheers drowned out the rumble of a Boeing 747 taking off from nearby Dulles International Airport.
That was hardly the scene a year ago when journeymen Rex Grossman and John Beck battled for the starting job, ultimately sharing the play-calling as Washington went 5--11 and missed the playoffs for the fourth year in a row.
Although the Redskins' futility can be attributed to more than poor quarterback play (the defense hasn't been a top 10 unit since 2009), the expectations surrounding Griffin are soaring.
"That guy is under as much pressure as you can dream of," says veteran running back Tim Hightower of Griffin, the second pick in this year's draft. "You bring in a superstar quarterback, and people think you're going all the way to the Super Bowl. They don't want you to be great five years from now. They want it now."
The RG3 hype is easy to understand. Consider this play toward the end of that practice in early August: Blitzed from every direction, Griffin escaped from the pocket to his right and threw on the run, hitting second-year wideout Leonard Hankerson in stride as he ran a crossing route in the opposite direction. During the same sequence of plays, he routinely held the ball on keepers up the middle, misdirections off tackle and even the option—the kinds of plays that made him virtually impossible to stop at Baylor, where on top of throwing for 7,794 yards and 59 touchdowns during his final two seasons, Griffin ran for 1,334 yards and 18 touchdowns and beat out the draft's No. 1 pick, Andrew Luck, for the 2011 Heisman.
Through three preseason games Griffin's numbers were solid: He completed 20 of 31 passes for two touchdowns and rushed for 22 yards on five carries. His versatility on offense will help the Redskins improve their ground game (they finished 30th in rushing in 2010 and 25th last season), but fans should temper any playoff expectations if the team has to rely on Griffin to be its primary ballcarrier. Then again, coach Mike Shanahan might have no other choice.
Like the quarterback competition here a year ago, the starting running back job is up for grabs with no clear favorite. Hightower, who rushed for 321 yards and a touchdown in five games last season before having surgery to repair his left ACL in November, is slowly making his way back to the huddle, while Roy Helu Jr. is sidelined with a pair of sore Achilles tendons. Despite recent soreness in his right knee, Evan Royster, who averaged 5.9 yards a carry in only six games as a rookie last year, could be the default starter when Washington opens the season in New Orleans on Sept. 9. Alfred Morris, a sixth-rounder out of Florida Atlantic, could also share the load after getting the most preseason touches.
"We'll be able to run the ball," Shanahan says. "The running game will be helped by our quarterback's mobility. [Defenses are] going to have to respect what he can do with his legs."
There are notable similarities between Griffin and Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who ran the ball 126 times last season, a record for a rookie quarterback. Both are mobile Heisman winners who were drafted to be franchise saviors. But at 6'2" and 217 pounds, Griffin is built more like the Eagles' Michael Vick (6 feet, 215 pounds) than Newton (6'5", 245 pounds).
Because of injuries—and nearly two years in prison—Vick has played a full season just once in his nine-year career. "If Griffin has to run the ball like Newton, the running backs aren't doing their jobs," Hightower says. "Our success is going to depend on other guys taking the pressure off our quarterback so he's not the focal point in every game and he doesn't have to be Superman every single week."
If the Redskins don't want Griffin to wear a cape, the running backs will need to give him at least a security blanket.
WITH 2011 STATS
OFFENSE 2011 RANK: 16
(N) New acquisition
(R) Rookie—College stats
TTD Total touchdowns
SACKS Sacks allowed
HOLD Holding penalties
FALSE False starts
2011 Record: 5--11
9 at New Orleans
16 at St. Louis
30 at Tampa Bay
21 at New York Giants
28 at Pittsburgh
22 at Dallas (Thu)
3 New York Giants (Mon)
16 at Cleveland
23 at Philadelphia
A chill ran down Paul's spine in mid-March when his cellphone rang and he saw the name Redskins Park on caller I.D. After a rookie (out of Nebraska) season in which he had just two catches for 25 yards, he thought his time in Washington was likely over. He turned to his father, Nicki, and said, "Hey, Pop, they're about to let me go. Should I answer it?" It's a good thing he did. The Skins had just signed receivers Pierre Gar√ßon from the Colts and Josh Morgan from the 49ers, and coach Mike Shanahan wanted to know if Paul would mind moving to tight end.
"No problem," he replied, breathing a sigh of relief. With veteran tight end Chris Cooley now at fullback, the 6'1", 234-pound Paul is expected to back up Fred Davis but still see significant playing time. In Washington's first three preseason games, Paul had five receptions for 36 yards and one touchdown while providing much-needed protection for rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. "As far as I know, I'll be catching passes and blocking," says Paul, though it will probably be more of the latter. "I'm blocking men who have 60 pounds on me. But you don't have to be the biggest. You just need to get leverage. It's coming almost naturally to me."
Quarterback pressures allowed by Roy Helu Jr. in 78 pass-blocking situations, second best of all NFL backs (minimum: 75 situations). The Bills' Fred Jackson had zero.
Percentage of tackles missed by safety Tanard Jackson (a free-agent signee from the Bucs), the worst rate for any defensive player in the NFL.
Plays on which the Redskins' defense stopped opposing runners for a loss, the fewest of any team in the league.
AL TIELEMANS (GRIFFIN)
Griffin needs to be poised under pressure if the Redskins are to rediscover what it's like to win.
JOE ROGATE/ICON SMI (PAUL)