For a visiting player, the Thanksgiving Day game in Dallas is one of those Carnegie Hall moments. Much of the football-watching/turkey-eating nation is gathered around the TV set — the broadcast earned a 38 percent share a year ago — and, well, you just want to be at your best. In your dreams, you perform the way Earl Campbell performed for the Houston Oilers in 1979, shredding the Cowboys defense for 195 yards rushing and two long touchdowns in a 30-24 victory.
What made Campbell’s day all the sweeter, of course, is that he’d grown up in Tyler, 90 miles down the road, and played his college ball at the University of Texas, where he’d won the Heisman Trophy. Sound familiar? On Thursday, Robert Griffin III, the kid from Copperas Cove who went on to fame — and the Heisman — at Baylor will make his first appearance on the Cowboys Stadium stage with the Washington Redskins. It doesn’t get much better than this, folks.
What we’ve seen of Griffin so far is only a snapshot, 10 games, but it’s been revealing nonetheless. What we’ve seen, as much as anything, is that RG3, like all great competitors, rises to these occasions. In his NFL debut against New Orleans in the clamorous Superdome, he threw for 320 yards and rushed for 42 in a 40-32 win. When he brought his act to the Meadowlands, he threw for 258 and rushed for 89 in a game the Redskins should have won. And in his first pass at the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday, he threw for 200 (and four touchdowns) and rushed for 84 in a 31-6 romp.
Now he faces another first, his first encounter with the team Redskins Nation loves to hate. On top of that, it’s a homecoming for him, not that he needs any extra incentive. DeMarcus Ware, who has half of the Cowboys’ 20 sacks, probably has envisioned descending on Griffin like a safe dropping from a third-story window. It promises to be a spirited battle, given all that’s at stake. Let’s face it, neither club can really afford to lose if it wants to keep its playoff hopes alive.
When Ware and Co. get their first close look at Griffin, though, they’ll find out what other opponents have found out to their chagrin: He simply can’t be coerced into making mistakes. For most rookie quarterbacks, it’s a game of trial and error, of learning through failure, but with Robert there hasn’t been a whole lot of error. He hasn’t just been good at avoiding interceptions, he’s been historically good. He’s thrown just three INTs in 277 passes — one every 92.3 attempts. The only QB who’s been picked off less often this season is New England glamour puss Tom Brady (one every 131). If RG3 maintains his current pace, or anything near it, he’ll be the least-intercepted rookie quarterback of all time.
Consider the other members of his heralded QB class. Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck (12), Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden (12), Miami’s Ryan Tannehill (11) and Seattle’s Russell Wilson (8) all have been substantially more pick-prone. But here’s the best part: They’ve each had a game in which they’ve thrown three or more interceptions. That’s as many as Griffin has thrown in the first 11 weeks.
Heck, Peyton Manning tossed a league-leading 28 INTs in his first year; more recently, Matt Stafford was picked off 20 times as a rookie. That’s closer to the norm. It’s not just what RG3 does, in other words, it’s also what he doesn’t do: give away the football. It’s the most understated part of his game, overshadowed by his track man’s speed, ultrastrong arm, Annie Oakley accuracy and flair for the dramatic.
Watching him play, you think of that line in “Little Man Tate,” the movie about the child prodigy: “It’s not so much what he knows but what he understands.” And what Griffin understands is that you can win a lot of football games by not losing them.
The rest of the team is following his lead. The Redskins have committed only nine turnovers thus far, tying the club record for the fewest through 10 games. They’ve also gone the past three games without a turnover (just the second such streak in franchise history) and been turnover-free in five games (tying another club mark — with six weeks to go).
How do you force a quarterback into mistakes? By applying pressure, of course. And how do you often apply pressure? By blitzing, by taking risks. But opposing defenses are reluctant to do much of that against Griffin because he might, oh, take off on a 76-yard touchdown run.
Welcome to RG3, Dallas — the quarterback who figures to be your Recurring Nightmare. You’d better beat him, because he’s not going to beat himself.