ASHBURN, Va. >> In an era when hype is overdone to be the point of being almost meaningless, a couple of rookies in the nation’s capital have done the remarkable. They debuted with long-suffering teams amid lofty expectations, yet they managed to exceed them.
Stephen Strasburg induced goose bumps when he struck out 14 batters in his first game with the Washington Nationals in 2010.
The feeling was eerily similar Sunday when Robert Griffin III set new standards for a first NFL start: 320 yards passing, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a rating of 139.9 in the Washington Redskins’ 40-32 upset of the New Orleans Saints.
“He definitely went beyond the hype,” Redskins linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. “You had people thinking he was going to do maybe 10 for 15 with 150 yards. I think he outdueled Drew Brees, arguably one of the best quarterbacks of his era, in his own house, with all that noise, that ‘Who Dat’ nation. He went beyond what people was expecting.”
The Redskins went into statistical overload listing RG3’s achievements — “Griffin III’s passer rating was the highest by a rookie with no professional football experience,” said the game notes — but the meaning of the day was more psychological than numerical.
Griffin, like Strasburg, has given fans a much-needed dose of hope, one that even some of his teammates didn’t think would come so quickly.
“To go into that environment and to be as successful as he was, and as calm, cool, collected as he was, I’m a little bit surprised,” defensive tackle Barry Cofield said. “I’m a little bit surprised that everything went as well as it did. I’m surprised, I’m impressed, and I’m happy for him. The way he works, the way he prepares, he deserves it.”
It had been seven years since the Redskins posted 40 points in a game. They didn’t even reach 30 last year. Yet, there was Griffin celebrating after the final whistle posing with Spike Lee — even though the movie director was wearing a New York Giants hat and T-shirt — and hearing teammates tell him he’s “not a rookie anymore.” The rookie who owns a Heisman Trophy held on to the ball saved from his first touchdown pass, an 88-yarder to Pierre Garcon, as if it were a gold bar from Fort Knox.
Those are precious moments for a team that’s finished last in its division for four straight years.
“A lot of excitement, a lot of optimism,” Cofield said. “You get a quarterback, a young guy comes in with that type of energy and that type of upside and ability, it pretty much puts a smile on your face. You feel like that guy can make a play to change the game at any time.”
There were five rookies starting in the NFL on Sunday. Griffin is the only one that won. He’s also the only one that didn’t throw an interception. His quarterback rating was double that of each of the other four. He ran 10 times for 42 yards, introducing the option into an offense that should give defense fits.
“There are a lot different directions we could go,” coach Mike Shanahan said. “And we’ll experiment as the year goes on.”
If Griffin follows the Strasburg trajectory, then the days indeed look bright for the Redskins. The Nationals have emerged from last-place-every-year doldrums and hold the best record in baseball, with a young roster that should stay good for seasons to come.
Similarly, the Redskins were full of young, non-RGIII promise on Sunday.
Sixth-round pick Alfred Morris rushed for 96 yards and two touchdowns. 2011 draft pick Aldrick Robinson made his NFL debut with four catches and a touchdown. Second-year safety DeJon Gomes returned an interception 49 yards to set up a touchdown.
Anyone wishing for a reality check will note that the Redskins usually do well in Week 1 — they’ve won eight of their last 11 openers — but it usually doesn’t translate into much of a season.
“It’s a nice win,” Shanahan said. “But it’s one win.”
Washington sports fans hope the Strasburg-Griffin career paths differ in at least one respect.
Strasburg missed a year after having Tommy John surgery and has been shut down this season after throwing close to 160 innings to keep him from overworking his arm.
Surely there’s no reason to shut down a quarterback after 160 passes, right?
“Well, he hasn’t had Tommy John surgery,” Alexander said with a laugh. “So there’s no excuse for that.”