A Quarterback in the Wind
LANDOVER, Md. — The downhill trek from the Morgan Boulevard Metro Station to FedEx Field runs three quarters of a mile along cookie-cutter townhouses and patches of overgrown brush. It’s a slice of quintessential D.C. suburbia, though residents know anything from the wild to the obscene can happen on game days. “I’ve seen dudes puking on the sidewalk, people in fights, groups chanting H-T-T-R! so loud it hurts your ears,” says Jerome Smith, who lives nearby. “But to me, days like today are worse. Days like today show you all life is sucked out of this team.”
Sure, there were still men camped out on the sidewalk trying to sell $3 Jell-O shots, and there even a few giddy 20-somethings carrying Bud Light 12-packs. But the foot traffic was sparse and the Beltway was eerily free of traffic. “Easiest day I’ve had in a while,” said a cop at Gibbs Way as fans solemnly marched by on the crosswalk. More than a downhill trek, Sunday’s pilgrimage felt like a funeral procession.
“The last time I remember it being this quiet?” says Derek Woefel of Fredericksburg, leaning against his red sedan decorated with Redskins bumper stickers. “Well, the last time it was this bad was before RG3 came to town.”
Woefel, a season-ticket holder, parks in the Orange Lot, usually one of the first to fill up. Two years ago, when the Redskins won the NFC East, it was packed hours before every game. Fans blasted pulsating music and there was always a neighborly spirit—“even people dancing,” Woefel says.
How bad is it for RG3? You have problems when an Elton John tribute to the untimely death of a celebrity becomes a theme song.
On Sunday, two hours before kickoff against the Rams, the Orange Lot was a sea of empty parking spaces. A few cars down from Woefel’s, somebody played Candle in the Wind, which I found incredibly odd until the tailgating DJ informed me it that was an RG3-themed rendition someone had posted to Youtube earlier in the week.
And your rookie year,
you were so great,
for Shanahan and the ’Skins,
And you turned all your critics
into unbridled optimists
But they finally had to bench you,
Because you never win,
You might get another chance to win,
but not from Jay Gru-den.
When an Elton John tribute to the tumultuous life and untimely death of a celebrity becomes your theme song, well, you know you have problems. Over the next six hours, I set out to determine exactly how bleak things are for a franchise that’s suffering an identity crisis from the front office to the fans. The Redskins’ 24-0 defeat to the seven-loss Rams did nothing to boost morale, of which Washington Post beat writer Mike Jones says, “It’s the lowest it’s been in a while. And I think it’s only going to get worse.”
Roughly midway through the game, fans began chanting for Robert Griffin III in the same manner they’d begged for Colt McCoy six weeks earlier. In the fourth quarter, McCoy left the field with a neck injury, opening the door open for RG3 to return to the lineup. And yet, regardless of who started and who finished, Washington was booed off the field for the second straight home game. Face, meet palm.
Quantifying the apathy and disinterest is easy. Tickets on StubHub ran cheaper than a stadium hot dog. A Craig’s List posting on Saturday offered a pair of seats in the lower level—for free. (It was unclear if there were any takers.) Multiple fans meandered around the grandstands with bags over their heads; one had the message “Snyder did this to me” scribbled in permanent marker. In the third quarter, a fan in the 200-level stood up and shouted, “Save Me!”
Discord now defines a tone-deaf and impatient franchise that chose to invest in promise over cohesion. Washington has a Robert Griffin III complex, and Rams coach Jeff Fisher reminded everyone about it during the pregame coin toss. He sent out the six players St. Louis ultimately acquired as a result of the 2012 draft-day trade that enabled the Redskins to land RG3 with the No. 2 pick. Griffin took it all in from the sideline, where he remained until summoned for mop-up duty. He completed three passes, and then was sacked.
“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t difficult,” veteran safety Ryan Clark says. “As far as the turmoil, it kind of just is what it is. It’s part of playing football in Washington. It’s part of being a part of a team that’s not playing good football.”
There have been reports that Griffin doesn’t work hard enough, reports that the quarterback will be traded, even reports that owner Dan Snyder would fire coach Jay Gruden before giving up on Griffin. Some beat writers grumble that the team feels like it did during the Jim Zorn-era, when it was a total free-for-all.
Just imagine how the paying customers feel.
“As a fan base, we just don’t know what to believe anymore,” says Amber Hutching, a 27-year-old who drove her grandfather’s pickup truck with an RG3 vanity plate to the game. “Literally every day it’s something different. At some point, it’s like, enough is enough. Stop driving us crazy.”
Snyder probably longs for the days when his team’s nickname was the biggest controversy.
* * *
Before training camp this summer, Griffin summoned Terry Shea to Washington for five days of private workouts. Shea, a former NFL quarterbacks coach and a respected QB whisperer, had worked with RG3 before. He tutored him before the 2012 draft, and the spring after Griffin’s disastrous 2013 season that ended with knee surgery.
“Going into this year, his health was premiere,” Shea says. “He was totally healthy and re-energized. He was really looking forward to playing for Jay Gruden. I thought he was in a great state, and sound with his mechanics.”
On the fourth day of workouts at a local high school, word spread on social media about Griffin’s whereabouts. By the time he walked off the field, a crowd had assembled in the parking lot. It was a particularly grueling workout, but Griffin, as he is known to do, signed autographs for as many people as he could. Then a young girl, maybe 12, asked the quarterback if he would speak at her Christian camp.
“Oh, I don’t know if I can,” Griffin told her. “Training camp begins in a few days.”
“Well, the camp is going on right now,” the girl replied.
Griffin smiled, hopped into his car, and drove with Shea to the girl’s camp. He spent more than 35 minutes speaking to a group of 100 kids.
“That’s the Robert Griffin I know,” Shea says. “He gives his heart to the game, and gives his heart to everyone. When I hear people question his work ethic or dedication, I know those people don’t really know him.”
Two years ago, Robert Griffin III could’ve run for mayor of D.C. and won. He set the record for most endorsement deals (Castrol Motor Oil, EA Sports, Subway, Gatorade, EvoShield and Adidas) before making his first NFL completion. Hundreds of DMV-area cars were adorned with RG3-themed vanity plates. Dan Cohen, 52, spent $4,000 to customize his van with larger-than-life depictions of the quarterback, including the trunk, which has Griffin’s arms triumphantly outstretched under the words “Back to the Super Bowl.” Not only did Cohen receive honks and waves every time he drove on the Beltway, his decision was generally accepted as totally sane.
Fans latched on to Griffin’s wholesome backstory. He came from a military family, he was religious. He never drank, never partied, didn’t even have a driver’s license until his freshman year of college. He overcame adversity. Remember, his first ACL tear happened in college. He trained hard (all those anecdotes of a young Griffin pulling tires on a hill near his house) and he studied hard (his parents used to pay him for every ‘A’ on his middle school report card, until the incentive became too expensive).
The Heisman winner had a legion of fans that worshipped him at Baylor, which boasts a 9½-foot statue in his honor. Yet Griffin, like any good politician, became a man of the people upon arriving in D.C. Fans sent him wedding gifts, even as small as $15 gift cards from Bed, Bath & Beyond. Griffin would respond with a hand-written thank you note. Some fans invited him to their weddings. Again, Griffin would send a prompt hand-written reply.
Griffin said all the right things, and he closed out all the big games. The Redskins won the NFC East in 2012. The rookie was charismatic, he was personable, he was a winner. But now? “It’s not that it’s a fall from grace,” says Cohen, the owner of the van. “I still believe in RG3. But...”
He pauses, then adds, “It’s hard.”
There were plenty of RG3 jerseys in the stands on Sunday. Though demoted to backup for the second straight week, Griffin was one of the last players off the field after the game, and fans above the tunnel chanted his name as he approached. He signed a few autographs before jogging into the locker room, his stoicism not betraying any emotions.
But in the locker room, the face of the franchise has become a disgruntled backup. Slouched in a folding chair in front of his locker, this RG3 wears dark jeans, a flannel shirt and has a Baylor fitted hat tilted low to cover his face. He has sunglasses on, and is mindlessly scrolling through his phone when I approach him.
I ask how he would assess his season. Griffin pauses, kind of gives a half-laugh and says, “It’s a blessing to be in this league and have the chance to play. Seize every day, that’s all you can do.”
Within seconds, a scrum of reporters surrounds him. Griffin stands up. “Excuse the sunglasses,” he says. “I didn’t know I was going to do an interview. But I won’t apologize for my [Baylor] hat, because we did get snubbed [in the college playoffs].” He smiles, the politician in him shining through.
Griffin answers three questions, for a total of 37 seconds, before a Redskins PR man whisks him away.
* * *
After dislocating his left ankle in a Week 2 win over the Jaguars, Griffin returned in Week 9 to play in a 29-26 loss to the Vikings on the road. Griffin was sacked five times, including on three straight plays in the third quarter. The next week was even worse. Washington lost to the lowly Buccaneers, 27-7, at home. Griffin threw two interceptions in the first quarter and was sacked six times. A few days later, Shea took a look at the film. He graded each play, scrutinizing Griffin’s accuracy and balance at the top of his drop-backs.
“Knowing the results of the game, I thought I was going to see a train wreck,” Shea says. “But it wasn’t that at all. He was fundamentally sound.”
Shea doesn’t think Griffin was favoring either his knee or ankle. Considering he’d been on the shelf for six weeks, his accuracy was good; he overthrew receivers on a couple routes, but it was better than underthrowing the ball. And he only missed them by a stride. “I didn’t see him misfire,” Shea says. “There were a couple balls I’m sure he’d want back, but it wasn’t the fundamentals that hindered him from putting up production we’re used to seeing.”
The issue, Shea believes, isn’t mechanical. Before the season Griffin was in a positive state of mind, having been afforded the blank slate that comes with a new coaching staff. “When he hurt his ankle, he lost valuable time being around Jay Gruden,” Shea says. “You have to understand, being around the coaching staff during the season is much different than mini camp. It’s really valuable time. And so, being away those weeks, he lost valuable exposure with Jay. The more he’s in the system and around the coaches, the better he’ll be. He has to have that experience, so maybe it takes a second season for him to return to full form.”
As I roamed around on Sunday, I tried to find the most lively or optimistic tailgate. I chanced upon a group that included Ronnie Jackson and Jeff Henley, 57, who have been going to Redskins games since they were kids. Under a banner that reads “Welcome to Redskins Nation,” they explained how going to games is a social routine, no matter how miserable the team might be. They are, of course, quick to bring up the good ol’ days, and you can hear the nostalgia in their voices when they bring up their favorite games at RFK Stadium. “The stands literally shook,” Henley says. “You could feel the excitement of the fans. That’s the kind of football game I love going to.”
Neither is willing to give up on RG3, though they wore Lavar Arrington and Santana Moss jerseys for Sunday’s game. Henley fondly recalls meeting the quarterback at training camp last year; he likes the fact the Griffin has good values. Jackson can’t figure out why the team is giving up on him so quickly. Why aren’t they willing to work with him, he asks? They should be employing Doug Williams, the former Redskins quarterback and MVP of Super Bowl XXII, to help tutor and develop him, Jackson says, rather than burying their investment on the bench.
“I guess the real problem,” Henley says, “is that D.C. is impatient. We’re so damn impatient.”
In a city always pining for the next big thing, it’s doubtful RG3 will ever live up to the image that fans have of him painted on their vans.
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