When he was a first-grader, Robert Griffin III's parents concocted a system of incentives to motivate their only son. This, everyone involved can now agree, was completely unnecessary. Griffin already "wanted to be the guy raising his hand," he says, "telling everyone what two plus two equals." Nonetheless, if Griffin's report card ever showed all A's, Robert Jr. and Jacqueline, both Army sergeants, would hand over five dollars. The rewards eventually expanded to include Ninja Turtles action figures, computer games and larger sums of money. Then one day, before young Robert graduated seventh in his class at Copperas Cove (Texas) High, the system finally collapsed. Considering the family's balance sheet, Robert Jr. conceded the obvious to his wife: "Robert is breaking us."
By the second quarter of Griffin's NFL debut on Sunday, the entire city of New Orleans could relate. Never mind the deafening Superdome, a determined Drew Brees or a Saints defense seeking vengeance for a seemingly interminable summer. Never mind that Griffin, a 22-year-old rookie, was the eighth quarterback to start for the Redskins in eight years.
The new kid began a scorching 8 of 8, rated a perfect 158.3 for the first half and finished 19 of 26 for 320 yards with two touchdowns and zero interceptions, a performance that no other first-time NFL starter has ever matched. Taking into account the Redskins' 40--32 upset, with New Orleans natives Jacqueline and Robert Jr. watching from the stands, it all adds up to Griffin III's finest report card yet.
"We all knew he had the potential to do it," left guard Kory Lichtensteiger said of beating the heavily favored Saints, "but he surpassed everybody's expectations. He was the leader for the whole game. He was unbelievable."
Yes, and he made it all look so very easy. Griffin's first touchdown was a masterpiece: a first-quarter play-action bomb, thrown on the backpedal, that wideout Pierre Gar√ßon took 88 yards for a score, leaving the quarterback to raise both hands into the air from his seat on the turf. But the more remarkable moment, the one more exemplary of his rare talent, came when he handed off to Alfred Morris in the third quarter. Griffin, an Olympic-caliber hurdler, got so far ahead of the play that he ended up blocking downfield for his tailback, who took the ball 18 yards.
"Coach [Mike Shanahan] took the reins off of me and allowed me to do a lot of the things I was used to doing in college," said Griffin. "We balled out."
And then, after it was over, the No. 2 pick in the 2012 draft skipped away into the locker room while the remaining Superdome crowd chanted R-G-Three! R-G-Three!
No matter how much that popularity spreads—and Griffin already has endorsements ranging from Nissan to Subway to Castrol motor oil—all the Redskins really want is to fill a void that has existed for well over a decade. It is ironic, if not plainly humiliating, that the nation's capital, of all NFL cities, has been so starved for leadership under center that two years ago some fans resorted to calling then 33-year-old Donovan McNabb the Franchise when he arrived at Redskins training camp for what turned out to be a very short tenure.
In truth, Griffin has been trying to halt that cycle of disposability since the spring. This off-season, before he'd ever met any of his offensive linemen, he sent them motivational text messages. "I'm doing my part down here to get ready," Lichtensteiger recalls one reading. Coming from a rookie—indeed, the first NFL starting quarterback who was born in the 1990s—this kind of message raised eyebrows.
Griffin also sought out retired signal-callers such as Kurt Warner and Rich Gannon for advice, hoping to find an edge. "He wants to be great—he wants to do the work," says Gannon. "But you've got to be realistic. The Redskins are a developing team, and you have to manage the bumps in the road."
When that struggle inevitably arrives, what will be of most help to Griffin is the experience of his final (Heisman-winning) season in college. Before Griffin's arrival Baylor was known primarily as a Big 12 cellar dweller. The miasma in Waco was not terribly dissimilar from what has long plagued the District. But then Griffin's Bears set to tying or breaking no fewer than 101 offensive school records as the junior led Baylor to a 10--3 record and a No. 12 final BCS ranking. Suddenly anything seemed within range.
On Sunday night, several hours after his first NFL victory, the quarterback walked across the field inside a silent Superdome, cradling his inaugural touchdown ball, and paused to reflect on all of the things that had once been gifted to him. "I might give this [ball] to my parents," he said. "The greatest thing was coming off the field and seeing the smiles on my mom and dad's faces." That memory would be his own reward.
"COACH TOOK THE REINS OFF AND ALLOWED ME TO DO THINGS I'M USED TO," SAYS GRIFFIN. "WE BALLED OUT."
RG3-RING CIRCUS Griffin passed with precision, ran like the Olympic-caliber hurdler he is, and in general directed the offense like a poised veteran.