This isn’t some sort of sensationalist tease intended to hijack your attention span. It’s a fact: Robert Griffin III is the most important young athlete in America. As if dropped upon us to rescue sports and restore our belief in humankind, he spent his first NFL season not only recalibrating our visions and expectations of quarterbacking play — he projects as the preeminent artist of football’s duel-threat era — but flashing an affability and intellect that someday could lead to higher political office in … no, I’m not going there yet.
That’s what was said about Tiger Woods when he was in his early 20s, and you know how those estimates turned out, those Mandela and Gandhi comparisons from his father. For now, let’s just say no one chuckles when his Washington Redskins teammate, Fred Davis, refers to him as “Black Jesus.” RG3, as he’s now commonly known by men and women and kids, is the son of military parents who talks openly about law school and politics. He smiles warmly and knowingly, wears those nerdy glasses like he owns the free world, and makes sure he sits down with his mother once a week so she can braid his hair, according to his cover story in the latest GQ. He’s married to a brunette from Colorado he met at Baylor, and Mr. and Mrs. RG3 have settled into suburban life in the distant D.C. suburbs of northern Virginia.
He looks and plays like he’s IT, which means he’s being counted on for hope, purpose, leadership, weekly highlights and victories, all those things demanded from transcendent sportsmen who want far more from life than touchdowns. If the faces of the league have been Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, RG3 has begun to push both old men out of the freeze frame.
I wish I didn’t have to inject a “but” here. But there’s always a “but.” In RG3’s case, there are two of them.
The first “but” is whether his body will break in two, whether a performer whose game is dependent on speed, deception and calculated running — in an option offense, no less — can stay healthy in a perilous sport that has no mercy on him. As it is, he’s still rehabbing from a major re-build of his ravaged right knee, a spaghetti-ligaments mess that was compounded, a lot of us believe, by the refusal of Redskins coach Mike Shanahan to remove a limping, tortured Griffin from a playoff game when all America was screaming for it. At 6-2 and 215 pounds, his body appears thin and vulnerable, unlike that of a fellow member of the new quarterbacking wave, Seattle’s Russell Wilson, who is three inches shorter but has a more solid build. Shanahan and his son, Kyle, the Redskins’ offensive coordinator, loved to use their vaunted new weapon and his 4.4 speed on game-planned runs that exposed Griffin to regular punishment. How long can he survive that way when defenses are frothing to pop him?
Griffin’s father is asking the same question. And when fathers start getting involved, alarms sound. In the GQ piece, RG2 says, “You tell a kid that you want him to be there for fourteen years, guess what? Historical data will tell you that the more he runs, the more subject he is to career injury. You name one quarterback out there that would rather run the football than throw the football and I’ll show you a loser.” (How’s your day, Tim Tebow?)
This after RG2 pleaded in a Washington Post story that the Shanahans start thinking pass-first, run-second. “I just know that based on what I know Robert can do, he doesn’t have to be a runner as much as I saw last year … I’m his dad — I want him throwing that football, a lot. A lot.” If RG2 is expressing these thoughts publicly, we can assume he’s echoing his son on the subject. We also can assume the Shanahans aren’t thrilled about those opinions.
The second “but” is how RG3 is handling the substantial societal burden upon him and his delicate comeback from surgery. At the moment, that’s a growing problem, because he and the Biggest Shanahan don’t agree on how and when he should return to game action. Despite all the heartbreak and pain of the last seven months, Griffin wants to play now, in the preseason games, as if he hasn’t learned a thing from stubbornly insisting he remain in the playoff game. “I’m dang near close to 100 percent,” he said. Wisely, Shanahan is aiming for the first regular-season game, which in itself would seem implausible if not for the amazing comeback of Adrian Peterson and other notable examples of modern medical advances.
Monday, Griffin told reporters at training camp that he is opposed to the grand Shanahan plan. “I can’t B.S. that answer. No, I don’t like it, but there is some part of it that I do understand,” he said.
Stoking controversy is not a good idea. Certainly, it’s not what a smart future politico does. The media had a field day with the story, nationally and in D.C., forcing Griffin to apply damage control the next day and claim, of course, that the media had twisted his words. “Just want everybody to know if there’s any questions about if there’s a rift between me and Coach, or if there’s a conflict, there is no conflict,” Griffin said. “Coaches coach. I’m the player. Coach has a plan, and I’m abiding by the plan. I’m doing everything the coaches are asking me to do. I trust those guys. They want me to have a long career. And that’s what part of this plan is about.”
Sounds like a statement crafted by, uh, Mike Shanahan. “Yesterday I voiced my opinion about it because I was asked about it, and that’s been twisted and turned and tried to put against his team,” Griffin said. “And that’s not what we want.” But RG3, you’re the one who said it.
Shanahan is still the head coach, I believe, not Griffin. Thus, RG3 will take snaps in 11-on-11 practice drills until further notice. The boss is trying to be patient with his restless colt, knowing he has experienced such disagreements before. “Robert is an energetic guy who wants to play. He shared with you how bad he wants to play,” Shanahan told the media. “I do talk to Robert. I talk to him about different ways that I think that you can lead or different ways to handle different situations. I will throughout the year, but it doesn’t change a person’s personality. Me and John Elway used to have knockdown, drag-out fights all the time. And that’s part of being a competitor, and that’s another reason you have great relationships with your quarterbacks.”
Such rationalizations won’t quell burning discussions about RG3. Donovan McNabb, now a television and radio commentator, clearly holds a grudge against the Redskins after an unpleasant D.C. experience in 2010. He has directed several commentaries at Griffin and the team brass, none uplifting. “I’m just trying to help him, but clearly the young generation think they have all the answers,” McNabb said on NBC Sports Radio. “And he’s going through a little turmoil right now of trying to get out on the field. And it’s unfortunate, but that’s where we’re at right now as far as these young quarterbacks who think they have all the answers. I honestly think that over there in Washington he’s getting brainwashed.”
Said Griffin of McNabb, in the GQ piece: “”I don’t think Donovan is an idiot by any means. But right now, it’s probably best we don’t talk.”
All of which constitutes a little too much angst right now for the, ahem, most important young athlete in America. Maybe it’s a blip we’ll forget in a month, if Robert Griffin III is repeating his debut performance last season, when he threw two scoring passes and accounted for 362 yards of offense. But what if it isn’t a hiccup? What if RG3 fades as quickly as he emerged?
If this sounds selfish, I’m sorry. But I don’t want to be let down.