For eight months and three days, Robert Griffin III waited.
Through the tear-soaked realization in January his right anterior cruciate had been repaired for the second time.
Through the Gatorade-soaked rehabilitation that Dr. James Andrews called “superhuman,” all recorded in a fawning ESPN documentary that listed Griffin as an executive producer.
Through passive-aggressive back-and-forth with Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, waged with anonymous sources and dodged press conference questions and unusual gestures like the quarterback suiting up for the first preseason game last month despite not playing.
All that led to 7:33 p.m. Monday when the expectant chants of “R-G-3! R-G-3!” merged into a single voice at FedEx Field. So many of Griffin’s maroon No. 10 jerseys and T-shirts filled the stands that any other number as looked out of place as the occasional Eagles pullover. The one-man highlight reel, aided by a right knee brace tucked under his gold pants after orders from the NFL, was back under center.
The wait ended.
And then Griffin didn’t look superhuman. Instead, he looked like a second-year player months removed from a major knee injury who watched the four preseason games from the sideline. The preseason hype about a deep run into the postseason and hope about what wonders Griffin would work next disappeared. In their place stood the quarterback who needed three quarters — though he swore that wasn’t the case — to knock off the rust.
But Griffin doesn’t believe in rust. Or the impact of not playing in the preseason. Or adjusting to the game’s speed.
“I think that’s an excuse,” he said. “I’m responsible for the way I play. I didn’t play very well in the first half. I’m not going to sit here and say I’m rusty.”
The first play? Alfred Morris took a handoff and fumbled the ball away.
Long before kickoff, Griffin jogged onto the field and flashed his made-for-television smile. Seven cameras followed each move. He jab-stepped past an equipment man a few yards from the spot where he chased an errant snap in January and his knee gave out. Anticipation rippled through each step.
The fourth play? Griffin floated the ball down the middle of the field into triple coverage. The pass had no chance to find the veteran hands of Santana Moss. Instead, Brandon Boykin snatched the gift from the air.
Television cameras caught Griffin’s pregame exhortation to the rest of the team. He insisted the game wasn’t about him. That wasn’t true, of course. Every snap, every decision, every moment came back to the 23-year-old the franchise is constructed around.
The seventh play? Backed deep in their own territory, the quarterback flung a lazy pitch to Morris. The ball, once again, skittered from the running back’s hands. He fell on in the end zone. The Eagles had a safety.
Every other Redskins player ran out of giant inflatable helmet before Griffin in the last minutes before kickoff. The end to ‘Operation Patience,’ the nickname he gave to his dissatisfaction over not playing during the preseason, appeared in sight. Same with the offseason where each utterance, each phase of his recovery that didn’t include a single mention of a setback from the organization, each training camp drill in Richmond was parsed. Finished. Fireworks blasted off when he emerged.
Bam. Bam. Bam.
Griffin, in full view of the packed stadium, dropped to his knees and pounded the turf. The crowd’s roar grew. This felt like a revival. The months of drama and off-message bickering? Gone.
But Griffin wasn’t himself. Not at first. That’s to be expected after an injury that would’ve sidelined lesser athletes for another month or two. But the everything-is-great message from Griffin, Shanahan and company didn’t allow for the possibility of an adjustment period. The lack of game experience showed. Griffin’s footwork was off. Throws didn’t zip like normal. He locked onto receivers. Routine swing passes floundered. Timing wasn’t there. One deep ball dropped to the turf with no receivers nearby.
Forget last season’s array of exotic formations and creative uses for Griffin’s unique ability to scramble and rocket passes. Instead, the Redskins used him with all the aggressiveness of a high-priced vase wrapped in layers of protective bubble wrap.
“I think everyone involved,” Griffin said, “coaches, doctors, trainers, everyone’s relieved — parents, fans — that I came out of the game OK.”
After Mychal Hendricks tossed him to the ground in the second quarter, Griffin drew a flag for intentional grounding. The third hit Griffin absorbed in the half left the quarterback slow to push himself up from the turf. He limped for a minute, then found his footing.
That’s how Griffin’s return went. Ragged, ineffective, at times, and absolutely necessary.
Glimpses of the old quarterback returned in the second half, those moments when he makes escaping trouble in the backfield to fling the ball downfield look simple. In the fourth quarter alone, Griffin rolled up 169 of his career-best 329 passing yards to go along with two touchdowns. The erratic start faded. The damage, though, had been done in the 33-27 loss to the Eagles.
But the fast-paced recovery overshadowed the equally challenging task of returning to play football’s most demanding position in situations bearing little resemblance to the languid days of training camp.
The wait ended Monday night, but the healing continues.