FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Ex-Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall was his usual hyperbolic self in a conference call with Atlanta media on Wednesday, but in saying that that the only person more popular than Robert Griffin III in Washington, D.C., right now is President Obama he might have only exaggerated in that the difference is, to use the words of another president, Griffin is a uniter, not a divider in these polarized times.
At least if the president goes somewhere in public, he has the benefit of Secret Service protection. With his newfound celebrity status, the rookie quarterback has no such luck in a city that is crazed for its Redskins, who have won four Super Bowls.
Griffin said he went to the mall recently and wore a hooded sweatshirt and sunglasses as a disguise. He thinks some fellow shoppers might have recognized him, but he thanked them for nonetheless not blowing his cover.
“That was nice of them,” Griffin said, “but for the most part I can’t go anywhere without getting spotted. But that’s the life we lead as professional athletes, especially the quarterback of the Washington Redskins.”
For a once-proud franchise that has wandered through mediocrity for years, Griffin, the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner and second overall pick in the NFL Draft, has sparked enthusiasm that Washington finally has a franchise quarterback. His 103.2 rating ranks fourth among NFL quarterbacks and his four rushing touchdowns are tied for the league lead. At 2-2 the Redskins are in the thick of things in the NFC East (led by 3-1 Philadelphia) as they host the 4-0 Falcons on Sunday.
Hall, the former Falcon, said that Griffin has made such a sensation that it has reminded him of when Michael Vick, then with Atlanta, set the league on fire with the kind of athletic plays few had seen before.
“He’s a rock star,” Hall said of Griffin. “Everywhere we go, he has a huge following, a lot of people supporting the Redskins, supporting him, so it’s nice to have that kind of backing. Kind of like when Mike Vick was on top and he would go to different cities. It was always kind of crazy. It’s that kind of atmosphere around here.”
The Falcons will try to let some air out of Griffin’s balloon on Sunday. Some of them are familiar with his on-field skills. Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (Missouri), safety William Moore (Missouri) and reserve cornerback Dominique Franks (Oklahoma) and cornerback Robert McClain (Connecticut) all played against Griffin when he was at Baylor.
Weatherspoon said one indication of the player that Griffin, a true freshman in the only meeting of their mutual college careers, was going to be was the fact that he threw his first interception of the season against Weatherspoon’s Tigers – and that came in the ninth game of the season.
“You could tell back then that he was going to be a great player,” Weatherspoon said.
One area in which Griffin could exploit the Falcons is in his ability to run. He has 252 rushing yards and the Falcons rank 29th against the run. Carolina, with a running quarterback in Cam Newton – albeit a much bigger one with a different style who isn’t as fast as Griffin’s 4.35 seconds 40-yard time at the NFL Combine – rushed for 199 yards against the Falcons.
“We’re going to make sure we’ve shored up the issues we’ve had in giving up 200 yards rushing last week, that’s for sure,” Falcons head coach Mike Smith said, “and put our best foot forward in terms of preparing ourselves for this offense. Even though it’s similar, there’s a lot of differences in terms of what they try to do.”
On the flip side, the Falcons lead the NFL in turnover differential at plus-10 and Griffin has fumbled five times but only lost one. In earlier victories, the Falcons confused two of the league’s best and most veteran quarterbacks in Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers, forcing them into turnovers. If the Falcons can do that to those two, what can they do to a rookie?
“You just try to make sure you eliminate the things that are going to make you start thinking too much,” Griffin said. “Just key in on what you need to key on. Peyton and Philip Rivers are two really good quarterbacks and (Falcons defensive coordinator) Mike Nolan’s done a good job, just like you said, confusing them. Some of the thing s he’s been doing are exotic. He’ll draw up different things each week that a quarterback has never seen to try and catch him off guard.
“My job is not to worry about that. Sometimes they’ll get us, sometimes we’ll get them. We just got to make sure we get them more often.”