Rookie Griffin emerges as Redskins’ leader

WASHINGTON — He came in with a plan, and the plan was to have no plan, or at least not one that was obvious. In the NFL, they can sniff out a wannabe-leader, a bold-faced climber, a fraud from a mile away. All the way back in the spring, Robert Griffin III knew he wanted to make the Washington Redskins his team, that he needed to do so — to mold it to his will — in order to take the franchise where he wanted to take it.

But he had to do it the right way — slowly, organically, respectfully. Eventually, undoubtedly, he would become the Redskins’ leader, but it couldn’t be his call.

Griffin, the son of two retired Army sergeants, had come into the Redskins’ organization as the equivalent of a five-star general — with a $21.1 million contract and four national television commercials before he had taken his first professional snap. But he was going to conduct himself like a private.

“My strategy was to come in and try to lead by example first,” Griffin said recently. “Being a rookie, you don’t want to come in talking right away. You can rub a lot of guys the wrong way. … One thing you can’t do as a leader is come out and say you’re the leader.”

Some eight months after he first walked through the doors of their practice facility, Griffin has the Redskins — a last-place team each of the previous four seasons — on the verge of the playoffs. A win over Dallas today would cement the team’s first division title in 13 years and earn the Redskins a home playoff game next weekend. Named to the NFL Pro Bowl team on Wednesday, Griffin is also a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year.

And there is little doubt, with all due respect to veteran linebacker London Fletcher, that the Redskins are Griffin’s team now. He wears a captain’s “C” on his chest, an extraordinary honor for a rookie, bestowed upon him at midseason. Especially on offense, but increasingly across the entire locker room, the Redskins take their cues from the 22-year-old superstar with the preternatural confidence.

“Everybody gets in line behind him and says, ‘Take us to the promised land,’” wide receiver Santana Moss, a 12-year veteran, said after last Sunday’s win over Philadelphia. “I know it sounds funny saying that, but he shows what it takes every day to get to where he’s trying to get by how he prepares. It shows up on the field on Sundays. There’s no question you want that guy to be a captain.”

You could argue, in fact, that Griffin’s greatest individual achievement this year isn’t the 104.1 passer rating that ranks second in the NFL, or the 752 rushing yards, which ranks first among quarterbacks, but the way in which he has altered the culture of the Redskins’ locker room. He has lifted it up with his overwhelming force of belief, rather than being dragged down by the weight of all the losing that met him when he arrived.

“His expectation of winning and playing great is a huge influence in here,” said veteran tight end Chris Cooley. “It’s been a drastic change of culture, and you could say Robert has been the biggest part of that. He’s a natural leader. When he talks, people listen — and people believe. No one said, ‘Okay, you’re the quarterback, so we’re going to listen to what you say.’ You build that trust.

“It’s an unbelievably hard thing to do. I don’t think he came in and in his mind said, ‘I have to make everyone believe in me.’ I think he came in and said, ‘I believe in myself, and I’m going to do what I do best.’ And the rest just falls into place.”

In a sense, the process by which Griffin became the Redskins’ leader was all just a big charade. Even the team’s most veteran players knew from the moment the Redskins selected Griffin with the No. 2 overall pick of the draft in April that he was the chosen one — their franchise quarterback, a transformational figure who represented the surest, quickest path to winning. If the team was going to go anywhere, the kid was going to lead it.

“We knew when we drafted him he was going to bring a different dynamic to this team that we hadn’t seen before,” left tackle Trent Williams said. “So we welcomed him with open arms.”

But in Griffin’s hands, that process was less a charade than a nod to tradition and protocol, and from Griffin’s own perspective, a deep and innate understanding of the right way to do things.

Griffin knew what he represented, what was expected of him, and what he was capable of. He knew the Redskins’ awful recent history, and he knew he could change their direction — because he had done it before. At Baylor University, he had helped transform the football team from a perennial doormat to a perennial bowl contender — not only through his talents but the sheer force of his personality — and won the Heisman Trophy as a junior.

“People started to believe in him at Baylor — believing what he was saying about turning it around,” his mother, Jacqueline Griffin, said. “And that’s what he knew he was going to do in Washington.”

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As the first Redskins players boarded the team bus at their Buffalo, N.Y., hotel on Aug. 9, on their way to Ralph Wilson Stadium for the team’s first preseason game against the Bills, they were met by a solitary figure in the front row. It was Griffin, and as each teammate walked past, he looked them in the eye, nodded and held up his fist for a fist-tap.

By this point in training camp, Griffin had become well known around Redskins Park as the first to arrive each morning and the last to leave each evening.

“I made sure I showed up early. I stayed late. I worked hard in practice,” Griffin said. “I brought a different type of attitude to practice than they were used to, feeling that every day is a game day. There were some feisty practices between the offense and the defense — just a lot of chirping and a lot of intensity, which is something teammates said they hadn’t experienced before. So I just tried to bring that attitude, and then let the game play speak for itself.”

Griffin surprised teammates — most of whom only knew of him as the flashy college superstar and ace pitchman for Gatorade, Subway, Adidas and Nissan — by being overwhelmingly unassuming and humble.

“When I first met him, we were passing on the stairs at Redskins Park, and he stopped me and said, ‘I’m Robert Griffin III. I’m the quarterback they drafted in the first round,’” recalled fullback Darrel Young. “I just looked at him and thought, ‘Yep, we’re going to be just fine here. This kid is as humble as they come.’”

If the Redskins had to acclimate themselves to Griffin’s style, the converse was true as well. The NFL, by nature, is a different animal than college. Players have families, real world problems, expensive toys — all of which compete for their time and focus. Football is their job, their livelihood, and the ultimate goal sometimes appears to be setting oneself and one’s family up for life financially — during the short window of opportunity that is an NFL career — more so than winning games.

Part of Griffin’s challenge was to break through that callousness and get teammates to rediscover the primal but dormant competitiveness inside them, a task made even more difficult by the culture of losing that had become entrenched around the Redskins. But while that culture perplexed Griffin in the beginning, according to people close to him, ultimately it was no match for the force of his personality.

“When you have a guy like that leading your team who is so excited to play — who wants to go out and do big things and take this team places it hasn’t been in years, it’s so easy to be excited with him,” long snapper Nick Sundberg said. “His attitude is extremely contagious.”

“His will to win,” said tight end Niles Paul, “is never-ending.”

The first major benchmark in Griffin’s ascension to the Redskins’ leadership throne may have been the win at New Orleans in his NFL regular season debut. It was one thing to make jaw-dropping plays in practice, or even in the preseason, and yet another thing do it in games that count — especially in a notoriously difficult place to win such as the Superdome.

“I think I earned their belief after the first preseason game, and I think I got their trust after the first regular season game,” Griffin said. “Because your work and your work ethic can only speak so much, but once you go out and do it in a game and you perform in the clutch, and you win a big season-opener like we did against the Saints, that’s when you can really earn guys’ trust.”

A week later, at St. Louis, Griffin led the Redskins on a potential game-winning drive in the final minutes that flamed out when wide receiver Josh Morgan threw the ball at opponent, drawing a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. As the final seconds counted down on a crushing loss, Morgan sat alone on the Redskins’ bench, with his teammates staying far away — until Griffin came over, patted him on the head and whispered something in his ear.

“He just told me to keep my head up and keep going,” Morgan recalled. “Yeah, it did mean a lot to me. He didn’t have to do that. With all the hype and anticipation, you think one thing about him. But then you see him, and he’s a normal kid — a normal kid with a big heart.”

Griffin didn’t do it to prove his leadership skills. Few people even saw it happen. He did it because he thought Morgan could use a lift, because he would need Morgan’s confidence again later, because it felt like the right thing to do.

“Sometimes people think it’s what you say when you’re in a huge group that makes you a leader,” Griffin said. “But sometimes it’s the one-on-one conversations you have with guys individually, just getting to know them. I think I’ve done that a lot. Not intentionally — it just happens.”

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Griffin was born with the leadership gene, inherited more than likely from his father. Robert Griffin Jr. enlisted in the Army when he was 18, and rose from private to staff sergeant, a promotion of five ranks, in his first year as an artillery man.

Many years later, when the elder Griffin — with his retirement papers already in hand — was suddenly stop-lossed and asked to return to Iraq to lead a dangerous transport mission, young Robert, then 13 years old, received one of the most important lessons of his life in the art of leadership.

“It was a pivotal moment for Robert,” Jacqueline Griffin, said. “Not only did he assume a leadership role with the family, as the man of the house, but he also got a glimpse of how much leadership matters, and that sometimes you have to make sacrifices to be a good leader. Sometimes you have to take a hit for the team.”

At Copperas Cove (Texas) High, Griffin became the starting quarterback his sophomore year and led the Bulldawgs to back-to-back appearances in the Texas state final his junior and senior years. Along the way, his will to win, not to mention his breathtaking ability, became the stuff of local legend.

Troy Vital, Griffin’s best friend from high school and his running back on those Cove teams, recalled a playoff game their senior year in which the Bulldawgs trailed by two touchdowns with five minutes left in the game. As they sat on the bench together, with the opposing team holding the ball, Vital figured they were about to lose and began rhapsodizing out loud about the approaching Signing Day, when Vital and Griffin would sign their college scholarship papers.

“He goes, ‘Don’t even start talking about that. We’re about to get back in this game. This is what we live for. This is our moment,’” Vital recalled. “We scored 24 points in five minutes and won the game. It’s just moments like that that blow you away. That’s how he is.”

When Griffin arrived at Baylor, the football team hadn’t had a winning season in 13 years, hadn’t been to a bowl game in 14 years and hadn’t finished a season ranked in the top 25 in 22 years. But by the time he left, the Bears had accomplished all three, and Griffin had become the first Heisman Trophy winner in school history.

In the beginning, Griffin was stunned by the complacency around the football program, bristling at all the empty seats in the stadium, and seething at the way players laughed on the team bus after losses.

“People were just used to losing,” said Lanear Sampson, a wide receiver who came to Baylor in the same recruiting class as Griffin and is now a senior. “It irritated him. He’s a winner. He wants to win. … He just believed in himself and his teammates and coaches, and believed we could turn the program around.”

It may be difficult to comprehend now, but as recently as November 2011, the knock against Griffin was that he didn’t have a signature victory — that he couldn’t win the big game. Then, on Nov. 19, Baylor beat fifth-ranked Oklahoma in a nationally televised contest, and followed that with wins over top-25 teams Texas Tech, Texas and Washington (in the Alamo Bowl), and no one ever again said Robert Griffin III couldn’t win the big game.

“He just has that mojo about him,” said Ahmad Dixon, a junior defensive back at Baylor.

With the Redskins, Griffin has already revealed a knack for seizing the largest moments. He won in his NFL debut (at New Orleans in Week 1), in his national television debut (at Dallas on Thanksgiving Day) and in his Monday Night Football debut (vs. the Giants in Week 13). And of course, he has led the Redskins on the six-game winning streak they bring into Sunday night’s game against Dallas.

Where he once wore the tag of being unable to win on the big stage, now he has a reputation for thriving on it — something that might bring the Redskins some comfort as today’s kickoff approaches.

“I’ve shown them through the games that no matter what the score is, we always have a chance,” Griffin said. “Not just because I’m their quarterback, but because of the attitude we bring to the table.”

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The captain’s patch is about four inches tall, a white “C” above four stars. One of the stars on Griffin’s No. 10 jersey is gold — indicating his first year as a captain — and the other three are white. In subsequent years, more stars will turn to gold, and eventually in year four, the “C” itself will be gold, as it is on the No. 59 uniform of Fletcher, the Redskins’ longest-serving captain.

The patch was sewn on Griffin’s uniform by a Falls Church, Va., tailor whom the Redskins use as a contractor, and was unseen by the quarterback himself until he arrived at FedEx Field on Nov. 18, the day of the Eagles game, and saw his jersey hanging in his locker.

“Words can’t describe what it means to be captain,” Griffin told ESPN’s Jon Gruden in a taping prior to the Redskins’ Monday Night Football appearance. “It shows me they truly believe in me.”

The extraordinary gesture — Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, who has been in the NFL since 1984, is among those who can’t recall another example of a rookie being named a team captain — was the result of a vote by Griffin’s offensive teammates, and it came at a critical time for the Redskins, after their bye week, with the team’s record sitting at 3-6 following three straight losses. It also came two days after Griffin welcomed his teammates back from the break with a stirring speech about how there was still time to turn the season around.

By that time, Griffin had gradually taken on a more outwardly vocal position as a team leader, and his teammates had begun to view him as such. One particularly meaningful moment came after the concussion he suffered Oct. 7 against Atlanta, when he failed to get down quick enough near the sideline and was leveled by an oncoming linebacker. The next day, at Redskins Park, Griffin apologized to his teammates for being so careless, and vowed not to let it happen again — a gesture that left some of them shaking their heads.

“He’s six or seven years ahead of what I’ve seen from anyone in our locker room, in terms of his status in the locker room, his ability to control a football team, his leadership,” said Cooley. “If you forget for a second that he’s a rookie, it doesn’t mean anything to you. You’re like, ‘Yeah, this guy is awesome. He’s the leader.’ But then you step back and think he’s only 22. He’s been in the NFL for six months. I mean, it blows me away.”

It is an intangible skill — the ability to possess humility and self-confidence in equal proportions — one that has tripped up countless other would-be leaders in professional sports.

“He’s got an aura about him. He just exudes confidence,” Sundberg said. “Without even saying a word, we know he’s going to go get the job done. It spreads to all of us. It’s something that’s vastly different from a year ago. His attitude, his want-to, above all else is what’s leading us.”

Griffin came in with a plan, and at least to the extent that events have transpired, it has worked to perfection. The Redskins are a team molded in his image: prepared, confident and full of belief in their mission. By lining themselves up behind their 22-year-old leader, the Redskins have allowed Griffin to lead them, if not to the promised land, then right to the edge of it.

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