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Robert Griffin III: Washington’s Unprecedented Static Sponge

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Robert Griffin's mere presence has a powerful impact on the team. Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images.
Robert Griffin's mere presence has a powerful impact on the team. Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images.

Head coaches in sports of any consequence obsessively seek to keep distractions to a minimum and problems in house. The tempered drama leads to clearer heads, and clearer heads lead to greater focus and better performance — or so the theory goes. It is an endeavor that promises boring results (I mean where in the name of Jerry Springer is the fun in private conflict?), but when you consider the contrast between the Lakers and the Spurs or the Jets and the Patriots, it’s hard to argue with the results. Examples aside, here’s the ultimate compliment of a coach’s quest for calm: it is the anti-Kardashian model of success. 

Pulling off the closed-ranks, tight-knit act in the internet and social media age is an equivalent challenge to swatting hormonal young men off your teenage daughter. At least in the latter case, bizarre statements and threatening behaviors are legitimate and often effective options for concerned fathers. Coaches, generally speaking, need to maintain control of their emotions and a connection with the rational world; otherwise, they risk creating the soap opera culture they sought to avoid. 

Football’s Disadvantage

Of the four major sports, football presents the biggest problem for coaches seeking to project a public image of team harmony. The sheer size of a football roster — 53 in the NFL versus 25 in MLB or 13 in the NBA — brings with it that many more twitter accounts, personalities to manage and guys in clubs after midnight (and if Cinderella taught us anything, it’s that nothing good happens after midnight). 

Even if those numerous points of failure are managed, the popularity of the NFL and the pace of the season itself — something that cannot be mitigated — are perfectly calibrated to manufacture drama. There are simply more eyes, microphones and cameras trained on the NFL than any other sport. The fact that your eyes, my writing and this website met (in June, with the baseball season in full swing and the Stanley Cup and NBA Finals ongoing) is proof.

Further, what other sport spends as much time preparing for games as the NFL? Answer: none. OTAs are held in May, minicamps in June, training camp is in July and a ridiculously long preseason is played through August all in preparation for merely 16 regular season games. Between those precious few games is a week of rest, recovery and preparation for the next engagement. Oh, and there’s a bye week haphazardly thrown in there at some point just for good measure. This schedule, one packed with consistent team access, numerous marginally newsworthy events and counter-balanced only ever-so-slightly with actual game action, is fertile ground for conjecture, the exacerbation of minor issues and the viral search for compelling stories — a search quite often obliged by a drunken player out for a 2 a.m. drive or a chaffed wide receiver with no catches but an active twitter account.

Finding Hope Amidst The Hopeless

It sounds hopeless, right? Every NFL coach should just submit to the inevitable, embrace their inner Rex Ryan and sign up for multiple seasons of “Hard Knocks.” There is no reasonable way, no reliable tool to counteract the all these adversarial forces and the insatiable public appetite for anything NFL. Well, there is one thing that can upgrade this seemingly hopeless situation at least to unlikely: a star.

One transcendent, charismatic player (preferably at quarterback) can defray much of the drama, trivialize the leaks and divert the media and fans from the team’s other undesirable behaviors. The term “rock star” is often applied to anyone that lights up the room and is a singular force of nature (whether they prance on a stage and carry a tune or not). Considering society’s swelled affection for the American derivative of football, “rock star” may have a new synonym: NFL quarterback. 

D.C.’s Great Distracter

A bona fide star quarterback can run interference for underperforming colleagues, teams with offensive nicknames or owners with raging PR problems. They can alleviate pressure on embattled former Super Bowl winning head coaches and apply an immediate and amazingly concealing coat of fresh makeup to a roster littered with blemishes. Yes, I’m talking about Robert Griffin III and yet another benefit of his presence on the Washington (you know the nickname).

In much the same way that Drew Brees aided New Orleans’ emergence from “bounty gate”, that Peyton Manning allowed the rest of the Broncos to prepare for the 2012 season in virtual anonymity and that Aaron Rodgers is the ultimate non-verbal apologist for a Green Bay team with no running game and a porous defense, RGIII became the elephant in every room at Redskins Park. He is a headline waiting to happen, the topic at the tip of writers’ pens and the subconscious image in the dreams of weary fans. RGIII is simply a phenomenon the ‘Skins haven’t seen … ever. I was going to quantify his rarity with a “since John Riggins or Sonny Jurgensen,” but RGIII may not be just unique, he may be one-of-a-kind. The only single player that might have had this much impact on the franchise is Sammy Baugh, and that’s just a guess. Forgive me, but I missed his prime years in the 1930s and 40s.  

It is easy to criticize the amount of attention RGIII captures or seeks, and (full disclosure) I have done just that. The benefit, though, of his willingness and desire to remain the football story in Washington, to absorb so much attention and to have his game, his knee, his pending marriage and his decisions critiqued to the nth degree, is the cover he creates for his teammates and the curtain he throws in front of the organization’s considerable warts. Without RGIII, the ‘Skins are about Dan Snyder, the missteps of Mike Shanahan, the nepotism on the coaching staff, the inability of Brian Orakpo to remain on the field and the failure of a crop of young players — Leonard Hankerson, DeJon Gomes, Jarvis Jenkins, Roy Helu and Niles Paul — to emerge as difference-making pros. With RGIII, those stories slip off the front page, leaving the franchise to be largely defined by its fascinating quarterback. For that (and many other things), head coach Mike Shanahan and the organization from top to bottom is deeply indebted to its young rock star.