ST. LOUIS – If Robert Griffin III’s debut happened on a catwalk, the encore was fought in an alley. The Washington Redskins rookie quarterback captured the NFL’s imagination with his Beauty on the Bayou in Week 1, but he was grounded in a brass-knuckle scrap at the Edward Jones Dome that featured wild emotional swings and hard lessons about growing as a professional.
Here late Sunday afternoon, Griffin walked from the field with his first NFL defeat as the St. Louis Rams christened the Jeff Fisher era with a 31-28 upset. The quarterback moved toward the tunnel with his head dipped toward the turf, gripping his helmet in his left hand. Across the way, Rams players jumped near an end zone, celebrating the awakening of a long-suffering franchise.
Griffin continued walking toward his locker room and later came to terms with a feeling opposite the elation he experienced after a victory over the New Orleans Saints seven days earlier. This moment, one lived after finishing 20-for-29 passing for 206 yards with one touchdown and an interception, introduced him to the full post-collegiate existence. This moment, he understood, was new.
One week, the NFL rewards. The next, it teaches.
“I don’t take losing very well,” Griffin said, when asked what was gained from his first NFL loss. “No one should. The day you start taking losses well is the day you should stop playing. You’ve got to continue to stay on the grind. Stay positive. Don’t act like it didn’t happen – but don’t let it hold you down for the next week.”
This Week 2 matchup was billed as Griffin vs. third-year Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, another former Heisman Trophy winner trying to lift a dormant organization. The pair impressed with contrasting styles: Griffin with his vision to complement a howitzer right arm and swift feet (he finished with 82 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 11 carries), and Bradford with his poise to enhance a smooth pocket presence and a tested moxie (he finished 26-of-35 passing for 310 yards with three touchdowns and one interception).
But Griffin was the one grounded on an afternoon when Bradford and the Rams rose to the occasion. Despite this, the rookie quarterback never looked overwhelmed. He appeared more than capable of leading a comeback before wide receiver Joshua Morgan’s indefensible unsportsmanlike penalty on Washington’s final drive.
Still, Griffin was the one forced to stand behind a podium afterward in a pressed black suit and answer questions about whether the Rams played him differently than the Saints. (Answer: No.) Griffin was the one forced to answer questions about if the Rams were more physical than expected. (Answer: There are no boys on that field.) Griffin was the one forced to answer questions about what from the loss he will keep with him. (Answer: The only ones who can stop the Redskins are the Redskins themselves.)
More than once Sunday, that looked true with No. 10’s leadership. Many times, Griffin flashed the confidence and composure that marked his 320-yard passing, two-touchdown performance at the Superdome. There were many times when he matched the Rams’ physicality with a headstrong approach, firing into the defense with power and precision beyond his years.
Was he perfect? Of course not. But development is a process.
“He’s a tough kid,” said Rams defensive end Chris Long, who finished with two tackles. “He’s ahead of his time. Week 2 in the NFL, he’s going to make some mistakes. We forced him into making some mistakes today, but he’s going to be something special. I told him after the game, ‘I had to play you to respect you, and I really respect you now.'”
Long is right: Griffin was forced into errors. That’s the reality of stepping into a blinding spotlight at 22 years old. His most obvious blunder happened late in the second quarter, when St. Louis’ pressure caused his first NFL interception as cornerback Cortland Finnegan slid in front of an off-balance throw over the middle at Washington’s 45-yard line.
From the start, the Rams sought to scramble Griffin’s psyche through trash talk. The defensive-minded Fisher also concocted a variety of coverage schemes to confuse the quarterback.
Other than Finnegan’s interception, though, Griffin appeared mostly unfazed for the second consecutive week. He met chatter from defenders with verbal barbs of his own. He showed patience under duress. In the second quarter, his 68-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Leonard Hankerson was a high-arching beauty that gave Washington a 21-6 lead.
But a key lesson in becoming an elite NFL quarterback is this: No amount of picture-perfect passes or mental maturity can overcome the weight of a loss. Ultimately, leaders are judged by their results. Ultimately, leaders are judged by the way they elevate others around them. Ultimately, the final score writes a star’s legacy.
“I thought it was a tough environment,” Washington coach Mike Shanahan said. “I thought he made some plays. I am very impressed in how he handled himself. It will keep on being a learning experience. Every game he goes into, he’s going to learn from it just like he did today.”
So it is with Griffin, a promising player who’s short of his potential. Yes, he placed his team in position to earn a surprising 2-0 start in a revealing year for Shanahan’s vision. But another skilled young quarterback with much to prove outdueled Griffin, doing enough to leave victorious.
In the end, that’s what will be recalled about Griffin’s performance Sunday: He played well, but the Redskins lost. He showed elite talent in a variety of ways, but he and his team fell short.
Was he perfect? Of course not. And he’ll learn from it.
“We lost the game,” Griffin said. “I didn’t make enough plays to help the team, and that’s the bottom line. You’re judged on wins and losses, and we lost the game. So I didn’t play well enough.”
Not on a day that introduced him to defeat as a professional.
Not on a day when he grew wiser through experience – the best teacher of all.