EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- This is how it’s supposed to end.
Rookie superstar Robert Griffin III, savior of the Washington Redskins, an improbable go-ahead drive in his first NFC East start, on the road, against the defending Super Bowl champs. A breathtaking improvisation. A well-timed scramble. A gorgeous deep ball floated perfectly into the hands of Santana Moss for a go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes. Euphoria.
This is not how it’s supposed to end.
Victor Cruz races downfield, splits a double-team, hauls in a perfect pass from Eli Manning and sprints to the end zone with what feels like the hopes and dreams of a franchise temporarily left in his wake. In the moment, it’s a killer, as demoralizing as it gets.
But for the future? Just one loss, not a knockout, just one round with many more to come. With RGIII, you get the feeling we’ll see many, many more of these duels with quarterbacks like Manning, only with different results.
“Rex [Grossman] told me in the locker room, there’s certain games you’ll be a part of that you should have won and lost, and some games that you should have lost and you won,” Griffin said. “We felt like this was a game we should have won.”
All of the above happened Sunday at MetLife Stadium. The Giants won 27-23. With a 5-2 record, following a Super Bowl championship, they’re the story right now. They’re the team that matters in the moment. We’ve seen Manning and Cruz come up big when it matters most, we saw it again Sunday, and if the game was any indication, we’ll continue to see it in the future. The Giants are the best team in the NFC East, one of the best teams in the NFL: a great quarterback, two great receivers, a relentless pass rush. They aren’t going away.
The Redskins lost. With a 3-4 record, last place, following three straight sub-.500 seasons, there’s little reason to expect them to be contenders in the present. But this is just the beginning, a rookie taking his lumps, going through the heartbreak of being an NFL quarterback, but showing a glimpse of the future in which the Redskins can trade punches with the best of them, overcome turnovers, play shorthanded and still pull out a win against one of the league’s best teams.
Did it happen Sunday? No. But almost. And almost means something for a storied franchise that’s made the playoffs just three times since 1992, for a franchise that bet it all on Griffin, sacrificing its next two first-round draft picks. It’s a move you have to get right. Less than halfway through the season, the move looks as right as ever, heartbreaking loss or not.
“That’s a special guy right there,” fullback Darrel Young said. “I’m not saying anything out of character that you guys don’t know already. He makes plays; that’s what he does. He does it week in and week out, and he’s going to continue to do it. I’m happy for the guy because he’s a good dude, and any time you’ve got a good dude like that you want him to have success.”
Against one of the best pass rushes in the league, without high-priced free-agent receiver Pierre Garcon, without leading receiver Fred Davis, who tore his Achilles early in the game, Griffin mostly out-dueled Manning. He completed 20 of 28 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns, his one interception that was a result of miscommunication, as tight end Logan Paulsen stopped his route. Griffin ran when he needed to run, picking up 89 yards on nine attempts.
And with the game on the line, fourth-and-10 at his own 23-yard line, clock inside three minutes, Griffin pulled off one of those spectacular plays only a few are capable of duplicating. He rolled out, he didn’t have an open receiver, he danced around, he somehow avoided Jason Pierre-Paul, he finally got rid of it while falling, and he hit an open Paulsen to keep the game alive. Then he scrambled another 24 yards. Then he found Moss in the end zone.
Griffin had to catch himself. He stood at the podium, describing what he thought was the Redskins’ winning touchdown. He saw the Giants with only one deep safety and decided to go for it, floating that pass 30 yards into the hands of Moss, in stride, to put the Redskins up 23-20.
“I saw one high safety, the safety rolled the other way, and I’ve got Santana Moss one-on-one against a rookie,” Griffin said, pausing, realizing the irony, and then continuing by saying, with a slight smile, “I’m a rookie, myself.”
Griffin doesn’t look like a rookie, of course. There are mistakes, including a couple turnovers, but on Sunday he was more accurate than Manning, who appeared out of sync with Cruz until the late touchdown.
The object of the Redskins’ offense continues to be putting Griffin in a position to succeed through read options, play-action passes out of the pistol formation and designed rollouts. He’s a smart passer and a smart runner, but like any quarterback with limited experience against stronger and faster pro defenses, the transition takes time. Still …
“I try not to approach the game like I’m a rookie,” Griffin said. “I don’t try to give myself excuses. Throw an interception, ‘Well, he’s a rookie,’ but in my mind I shouldn’t have thrown an interception. So I just don’t approach it that way, and the team doesn’t look at me like a rookie either. I’m their leader, I’m their quarterback, so I can’t go out there and say, 'Well, if I made a mistake it's because I'm a rookie.' I have to hold myself accountable for everything. I think that’s why I’m able to go out and be successful.”
These two teams will do it again. They’ll do it with more on the line. That’s what Robert Griffin III gives to the Redskins -- a chance against anyone, in any situation. Yes, he is technically a rookie. All that means is the Giants, and the rest of the NFC East, and the rest of the NFL, will have to deal with him for the next decade-plus.
“He’s a great quarterback,” running back Alfred Morris said, “and I told him on the sidelines, ‘I’m so glad you’re my quarterback.’”
Washington lost Sunday. It was surely crushing, as much of a heartbreaker as you’ll see at this stage of the season. But even if you hate the term “moral victory,” it’s clear the silver lining is there, that Morris could speak for an entire team, an entire organization, an entire fan base.
Eli and the Giants won again, but, for RGIII in the NFC East, this is only the beginning.