NEW ORLEANS — Robert Griffin III tossed a football back and forth from his right hand to his left late Sunday afternoon inside a cramped room at the bottom of the Superdome. Still wearing his game jersey, pants and shoulder pads, the Washington Redskins’ beacon of hope chatted with dozens of reporters who came here knowing they would witness the beginning of an era but unsure of how the details would unfold.
And when the first act of this new drama finished, when the Redskins completed a 40-32 upset of the New Orleans Saints and quieted the booming decibels here, Griffin held the symbol of the day in his hands.
That football was the one with which he completed an 88-yard touchdown catch-and-run to newly-signed receiver Pierre Garcon in the first quarter. It was the rookie quarterback’s first NFL touchdown and, just as notably, the first touchdown scored by this retooled Redskins’ offense. All the explosiveness and play-making ability Washington demonstrated in outscoring the NFL’s best offense was there in that pigskin.
“We did a lot of things that we hadn’t shown in preseason,” Griffin said, eye black strips still on his cheeks. “I think everybody executed it to a tee, being able to adapt the offense as [the defense] started to catch on to things and continue to keep them off guard. I thought everybody did great job.”
Griffin’s NFL debut was one for the ages. It somehow managed to match the excessive hype that preceded this day for months. He was 19 of 26 for 320 yards and two touchdowns. His passer rating was 139.9.
He became the first quarterback in league history to throw for 300 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in his NFL debut.
How he got to that historic perch, though, is the strongest indication this is a new version of the Redskins’ offense, not the anemic ones of previous last-place seasons.
“It really doesn’t matter what happened two years ago, but this is a different football team,” coach Mike Shanahan said. “I’ve been telling you that from Day 1: more character, we’ve got more skill.”
Griffin’s combination of speed carrying the ball — he ran 10 times for 42 yards — and throwing prowess proved problematic for the Saints defense.
That, plus contributions by additions Garcon, receivers Joshua Morgan and Aldrick Robinson and rookie running back Alfred Morris, crystallized, for one afternoon at least, Shanahan’s vision when he assembled this team.
“It’s kind of all this stuff that we see on paper, all this stuff we see on tape,” said tight end Logan Paulsen, who was part of Washington’s sluggish offenses the last two seasons. “It’s kind of starting to become a reality.”
Griffin established a new paradigm on the second play of the game when he took Washington’s second offensive snap out of the shotgun formation, faked an inside handoff to Morris and then raced around the right side for 12 yards and a first down.
He completed all six of his passes on the opening drive, which culminated in a 37-yard field goal. All the completions were screens. Griffin, demonstrating poise and savvy beyond his years, checked out of designed running plays at the line of scrimmage because of what formations the Saints showed.
“It’s pretty impressive when a young guy comes in and plays with that composure especially in an environment like this,” Shanahan said.
From there, the Redskins stayed ahead of the Saints’ adjustments on defense. Griffin’s speed is such a threat that, as Shanahan expected, Washington could effectively strike in different ways.
Paulsen credited offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan for masterfully operating all the new pieces on offense. In a team meeting Saturday night, Kyle predicted how the Saints would adjust to what the Redskins would begin the game with, and then he extrapolated a series of adjustments that would evolve.
“That’s almost exactly how the game fell,” Paulsen said. “He’s on his stuff. I think that’s one of the great things about Kyle as an offensive coordinator: he has got great foresight in terms of play-calling.”
Of course, it helped for the engineer to have the proper tools. Garcon’s touchdown catch and run was a revelation. He caught the ball 16 yards beyond the line of scrimmage and outran a defensive back for the remaining 72 yards.
The Redskins last season scored only one touchdown in which a player caught the ball outside the end zone and ran it in. It took these new Redskins only two drives to equal that feat.
“That is the stuff that really got me geeked up,” Paulsen said.
Griffin basked in the success. The afterglow included high-fives for Redskins fans that congregated behind the visitor’s bench and chanted “R-G-3!”
“You can win a high school state championship or get there a couple times, win a bowl game in college, do all those things,” he said. “But to play in the NFL, the pinnacle of it all and win your first game … it’s definitely number one on my list.”
With those words, he stepped away from the podium, leaving others to wonder how quickly he and his teammates will replace it at the top.