He's the NFL's most exciting player, the favorite through Week 6 to be Offensive Rookie of the Year and, yes, he's even in the conversation for MVP. After all, who has meant more to his team than Robert Griffin III, the player the Redskins paid a king's ransom to acquire before last April's draft?
Without RGIII, the Redskins are probably a 1-5 team at this point. But with their rookie phenom leading the way, the 3-3 Redskins have been close in every game and could easily be 5-1, if not for Josh Morgan's late personal foul penalty against the Rams and RGIII's concussion against the Falcons.
Washington visits the Giants Sunday with a share of the NFC East lead at stake. The current excitement over the NFL team in our nation's capital -- and its quarterback -- is a far cry from the end of the last season, when quarterback inconsistency helped doom the team to a 5-11 record.
Finding a new starting quarterback to compete in today's pass-happy, QB-driven NFL was job No. 1 for Redskins coach Mike Shanahan and GM Bruce Allen in the offseason. And it had to be somebody special to energize a rabid but impatient fan base and generate some positive press for a change. This was a team with no Pro Bowl quarterback since Brad Johnson in 1999.
But it's not just the fan base that was itching for a winner. Shanahan and Allen also had a demanding and disappointed owner to appease in Daniel Snyder. Snyder's concern isn't just winning. He and his marketing department are thinking about future ticket and suite sales and sponsorship revenue. Above all, team morale needed a boost.
As a former GM, I know the pressure that Shanahan and Allen were feeling to make a major move. I also know how difficult and costly -- but critical -- it is to acquire a top quarterback. I was involved in several quarterback trades, including the Vikings' acquisition of Warren Moon from Houston (for a third- and fourth-round pick, a bargain because he was 37 at the time and led us to a division title in 1994) and the 1999 trade of Brad Johnson from the Vikings to the Redskins (for a first-, second- and third-round pick).
The price definitely rises when you're trading for a quarterback. But sometimes as a GM and coach, you've got to step up and take a huge but calculated gamble, especially if you think your guy is a potential franchise passer. There are plenty of external factors trying to influence your decision-making, but ultimately you've got to do what's in the best interest of the team and weigh the short- vs. long-term.
The rapid ascension of RGIII was not pre-ordained like a John Elway or Andrew Luck, two Stanford quarterbacks who were top-rated throughout their college careers. Most scouts did not have Griffin graded as a first-round pick entering his junior year at Baylor. But his skill set, along with that Heisman Trophy-winning season, raised his pre-draft stock dramatically.
Luck was clearly going No. 1 to the Colts. Griffin firmly entrenched himself at No. 2. Shanahan and Allen knew they could sit at No. 6 and take another quarterback, but they decided that they had to get Griffin. So Shanahan went to work on his old friend, Jeff Fisher, whose Rams held the No. 2 pick.
The final price the Redskins paid for the right to draft RGIII was staggering -- their No. 6 overall pick, plus a second-round pick in 2012 and first-rounders in 2013 and 2014.
The lack of high draft picks will certainly hurt the Redskins going forward. And they are further choked by the $36 million in salary cap hits split over 2012 and 2013 due to league sanctions from alleged overspending in the uncapped year of 2010. It's hard to have a lot of quality depth with these obstacles. The Redskins will have to do a great job in drafting mid- to late-round picks and shop wisely in free agency.
But the bottom line is that Shanahan and Allen knew that having a great quarterback such as RGIII was a necessity. And it didn't hurt the cause of selling the owner, team, fans and media on the deal to know that the Redskins were getting a dynamic player and engaging personality who already was an endorsement machine and marketing dream, on and off the field.
"Everybody is looking for a franchise quarterback, and we had a chance to get someone special who can be here 10 to 15 years," Shanahan told me before the season began. "Robert has great arm strength, he can run and make plays with his feet, he's strong and will get stronger. It's obvious he has all the intangibles -- the work ethic, he studies the game, wants to be a good player, wants to win, the way he handles himself. We've got to surround him with good players to be successful."
Of course, time will tell if the risky move to bring RGIII to D.C. was worth it. The early returns say absolutely yes. RGIII has made the Redskins relevant and fun to watch for the first time in many years. He is leading the way in attempting to change the losing culture of a team that has been out of the playoffs since 2007.
RGIII's numbers are eye-popping through six games: 70.2 completion percentage (No. 1 in the league); 8.3 YPA (No. 2); 100.5 passer rating (No. 3); only two interceptions in 161 attempts. He was named Rookie of the Month in September.
RGIII came roaring out of the gate in the opening win at New Orleans, throwing for 320 yards and 2 TDs, including an 88-yarder to Pierre Garcon. In Week 4 at Tampa Bay, he showed he can be clutch in crunch time by leading a 54-yard drive to set up the winning field goal with three seconds left, including a key 15-yard run. Last Sunday, he thrilled the home crowd by throwing for 182 yards and one TD and running for 138 yards and 2 TDs, including the game-clinching 76-yarder (the longest NFL QB run since 1996 in the 38-26 win over the Vikings.
To justify the price of the trade, though, RGIII will have to be a Pro Bowl- and playoff-caliber quarterback on a consistent basis over a long period.
I've seen risky trades look great at first and then go haywire, such as the infamous Herschel Walker deal. I was the assistant GM of the Vikings (thank goodness I didn't make the trade) when we sent a boatload of high draft picks to the Cowboys for a back who rushed for 148 yards in his first game in Minnesota. Everyone in Vikingland thought Herschel would lead us to the Super Bowl. But he wasn't a great fit for our offense, never rushed for 1,000 yards with us and was released two years after the trade. Meanwhile, the draft picks helped Dallas become a power in the early '90s.
The difference here could well be that Mike Shanahan was a key decision-maker in the trade and, as head coach, he is making sure the Redskins' offense is catered to RGIII's strengths as a passer, runner and smart quarterback who is adept at reading NFL defenses at a young age. The two Shanahans have the Redskins running a part-option offense that allows RGIII to be a dual run-pass threat. And as time goes on, Shanahan will meld in more and more of his regular offense. Right now, things are working well, as the team ranks third in scoring (29.7 points per game) and fifth in total yards (394 per game).
What Shanahan and the Redskins can't guarantee is that the 6-foot-2, 217-pound Griffin will be durable enough to achieve consistent greatness in the rough NFL world. He's already had a concussion this season on a sideline hit in the Atlanta game. Shanahan wants his star rookie to learn how to slide and avoid the big hits. He may run faster than Cam Newton, but he's not 6-5, 245 pounds.
Griffin has yet to face the fierce pass rushers of the NFC East. That starts Sunday when he takes his show to New York. There he'll be chased by Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and company, who are coming off a 26-3 road shellacking of the 49ers that included six sacks and three interceptions of Alex Smith. The Giants also remember being swept last year by the then-lowly Redskins.
Waiting in the wings are the Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware and the Eagles' Jason Babin and Trent Cole. Washington's brutal second half schedule includes five of the last seven games in the division. It will be a major challenge for the team to stay in the playoff hunt.
RGIII is currently the undisputed leader of the pack of five rookie quarterbacks starting this season. He will be forever linked to his fellow 2012 classmates, especially Luck. But more than Pro Bowls and gaudy passing and rushing stats, what will matter most in the future pecking order are playoff and Super Bowl wins. And a bunch of those for RGIII over the next 10 or so years will mean that the Redskins' big move to acquire him was definitely worth the hefty price they paid.