When Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III was growing up in Texas in the 1990s, his favorite NFL team was the Denver Broncos, a squad that won back-to-back Super Bowls. The Broncos were led by head coach Mike Shanahan, quarterback John Elway, and running back Terrell Davis.
When the Redskins host the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday at FedEx Field in the first round of the NFC playoffs, Griffin, the rookie phenom out of Baylor, will begin his quest for a Super Bowl ring under a coach he once idolized (Shanahan) and with a running back (rookie Alfred Morris, like Davis, was a sixth-round draft pick) he calls his “Terrell Davis.”
Griffin will face off against Seattle Seahawks rookie sensation quarterback Russell Wilson, a Richmond native who will be making a homecoming and has had a season on par with -- or better than -- Griffin’s.
While Griffin is in one of the major media markets and is a star signal caller in a city in which the Redskins quarterback is more popular than the sitting president, Wilson plays in Seattle, far away from the glare of national spotlight. Griffin was labelled a “can’t miss” prospect after winning the Heisman at Baylor. The Redskins traded three first-round draft picks to move up in the draft to snag a quarterback whom they wanted to be the face of their franchise.
Wilson, meanwhile, despite having succeeded at the quarterback position at every level, was disregarded and discounted, despite his considerable savvy, leadership qualities, intangibles, and Fran Tarkenton-like elusiveness. Conventional scouts thought Wilson was too short to play quarterback in the NFL.
But Seattle Coach Pete Carroll, the former USC coach who vows to “always compete” and is not known for being conventional, immediately saw Wilson’s abilities and anointed him the team’s starter after three preseason games over Matt Flynn, whom they had signed to a $24 million contract in the offseason as a free agent from Green Bay.
Griffin and Wilson have been equally impressive and the comparisons are inevitable. Griffin has not wilted under the glare of the white-hot spotlight. In fact, the Redskins have gone undefeated, winning seven straight games since the team named Griffin a captain, when every week was essentially a playoff game.
Wilson, with his stellar play, has forced the spotlight to be directed at him.
Both teams employ the read-option on offense, often from the pistol formation, which former Nevada head coach Chris Ault popularized. Both quarterbacks are known for their scrambling abilities but are successful because, more than anything, they are great pocket passers and throw good deep balls. They both are great at play-action. They have stellar running backs in the backfield. Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch finished third in the league in rushing yards, behind the Redskins' Morris, who finished second.
Griffin and Wilson set rookie records for touchdown-to-interception differentials and quarterback ratings. Wilson tied Peyton Manning’s rookie record of 26 touchdown passes.
The Seahawks, though, also have a ferocious defense. And Griffin, who is still not fully recovered from his leg injury and is less mobile than he normally is, will need his offensive lineman to buy him time from the aggressive Seahawks pass rush.
Seattle has given up the fewest points in the NFL and have faced teams, like the San Francisco 49ers and quarterback Colin Kaepernick, that employ the pistol formation and the read-option. The Redskins have struggled against top defenses this year, even losing to the Carolina Panthers (a top-10 defense) the weekend before the presidential election at home. The Redskins have been vulnerable against playmakers like Wilson, and their pass defense has been less than stellar.
Winning on the road in the NFL playoffs is difficult, especially when a team travels cross country like the Seahawks. Seattle has not won a road playoff game in nearly 30 years.
Griffin has revitalized football in Washington and is the toast the D.C. area in addition to already being one of the most-recognizable faces in the NFL.
For Wilson, though, being overshadowed and underestimated -- even in his backyard -- is not new. After a stellar high school football career, the hometown University of Virginia bypassed him. When he enrolled at North Carolina State, he became a starter after coaches had initially pencilled him fifth on the depth chart. After a stint playing minor league baseball, the experts discounted his chances last year at Wisconsin. Wilson’s Wisconsin teammates promptly named him their captain after the first day they met him. Wilson led the Badgers to a Rose Bowl appearance. When conventional wisdom said Wilson was too short to play in the NFL, he won the starting job in Seattle and had one of the best seasons ever by a rookie quarterback.
Perhaps Wilson has overcome the odds because he does not let pressure get to him. When Wilson was 13, he had to sit on his dad’s lap and take the wheel of the car and drive it off the freeway after his dad passed out due to a diabetes-related incident. Wilson calmly drove the car to safety and asked a motorist to call 9-11 to save his late dad’s life. Wilson’s father, who wanted to see his son get drafted by a professional baseball team, died the day after the Colorado Rockies drafted him.
The hype machine -- and Wilson's home region -- will be buzzing around Griffin. But if Wilson's odds-defying past means anything, that may allow him to perform at his best on Sunday.