The quarterback position is the most exalted in American sports. No other attracts such attention, scrutiny and adulation. It's a function of football's popularity and the nature of the game. The quarterback handles the ball on every play. His decision-making and execution directly correlate to his team's success.
That's why the Washington Redskins traded three first-round draft picks and a second-rounder last spring to acquire one of the sport's best prospects. And he, in turn, is a major reason why they will play for the NFC East championship on Sunday night.
Robert Griffin III has had a sensational rookie season. Electrifying touchdown runs, awe-inspiring passes, star-quality flair and a six-game winning streak have resulted in a stream of accolades that continue to flow. Griffin on Wednesday evening added his first Pro Bowl nomination to his resume.
All of that, however, is prologue to Sunday night and, pending the outcome against the Dallas Cowboys, what comes after.
Griffin understands quarterbacks, fairly or unfairly, are judged by results in playoff games or those with championships at stake. He has played well in big games during his rookie season, and as a result, those around him belief he is equipped to produce the championship moments that comprise an elite legacy.
"If you're going to be compared to the greats, you're going to have to win some big games," coach Mike Shanahan said. "I love the way Robert has handled himself since he's been here. He doesn't handle himself like a rookie. He handles himself like a veteran the way he prepares, the way he works, the intangibles, how important football is. That's all the things that you look for in a quarterback. He has all those things."
At the core of Griffin's success in big games is awareness. He respects the magnitude of moments such as the Redskins' nationally elevised victories over Dallas on Thanksgiving and the New York Giants on "Monday Night Football" earlier this month. That appreciation involves a sense of how to handle the pressure and intensity.
He brought to Washington a motto he and his collegiate teammates relied on at Baylor: "Don't freak out."
"Whenever you play the moment up too much, it can become too big to seize the moment," Griffin said. "You just want to make sure you don't make something so big that you can't grab a hold of it."
Griffin's counterpart Sunday night serves as a cautionary example.
Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo has performed well enough during the regular season to forge his name among the NFL's best quarterbacks. His career passer rating of 96.1 is better than Peyton Manning's 95.5. In Romo's ninth season, he has thrown more touchdown passes (175) than Cowboys Hall of Famers Troy Aikman (165) or Roger Staubach (153).
Aikman and Staubach, however, combined to win five Super Bowls. Romo, by comparison has won only one of the four playoff games in which he has played.
So while Griffin on Sunday has the chance to begin crafting his legend, Romo will try to change his narrative.
"The criticism that will come is ultimately the obvious of: 'Until you win a championship or compete for that championship,'" Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said. "At that position, it's always going to come.
"For a four or five-year stretch here, he has played at a high level, so his expectations for himself are so high. I don't think he really gets in the way of all the other stuff kind of under-riding it, but ultimately you always know what's at stake, and it's part of playing that position."
Griffin's mentor inside the Redskins' locker room also has first-hand knowledge of that reality.
Rex Grossman lost his only Super Bowl appearance with the Chicago Bears in 2006. Not only was he widely characterized by local fans and media as an impediment to a world championship, the winning quarterback in that Super Bowl, Indianapolis' Manning, validated his career with his only world title.
"Put Dan Marino on the '92 Cowboys, heck yeah, they're going to win the Super Bowl," Grossman said. "It's a team sport. Now, if there's something wrong with you in those games, that's a different story. Fans and media are looking for patterns, but sometimes it's coincidence.
"At the end of the day, you're going to be judged if you're a great quarterback on how many Super Bowls you have. If you're somewhere down the line, they're going to talk how many big games you've won. And if you win a big game, the next one is going to be bigger. Can you win that? It's a climb up to the top."
That means Griffin is at base camp. He's about to start up the mountain.
For him, though, succeeding requires a refusal to view it from such grandiose perspective.
"It is the biggest stage," he said. "None of us are looking at this that way. It's another game that we have to go out and win. Every moment in your life is the biggest one that that time, so we look forward to having many more of these. But we've got to make sure we take care of this one."
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