After an alternately queasy and actively depressing NFL offseason, the imminent return of RGIII is a rare and welcome bit of good news -- not just for Washington fans, but everyone who cares about football.
None of the members of the marching band that got on the bus from the auxiliary parking area -- a gravel pit closer to the zombified subdivisions of Landover, Maryland than FedEx Field itself -- believed that their team would lose. This was not a scientific poll. We were in a short-bus wrapped in advertising for P. Diddy's vodka brand, which is to say wrapped in that Fuming Squirrel face Diddy makes when he's trying to look serious.
The bus smelled like infected hangover. No one wanted to touch what was either a pole for passengers to hang onto while the bus was in motion or a pole with... other uses. Despite all this, though, the mood was positive, insofar as every passenger I asked seemed confident that Washington would win its Wild Card game against Seattle, and that there was no telling what the team might do with Robert Griffin III under center.
Again, it was not a scientific poll: I was asking football fans who were unselfconsciously partisan enough to bring brass instruments to a football game how they felt about their team. There might have been one musician inside the Diddybus, staring down at his trombone case with some doubt in his heart, who considered the possibility that his team maybe wasn't quite good enough at tackling, or that the Seahawks actually were as good as they'd looked in their best games, or that anything at all can happen to upend expectation and hope in a game systematically brutal enough to twist and rend and diminish any player into sudden crushing weakness, whenever that moment chooses to occur.
Anyway, no one mentioned it. Why would they have mentioned it? They were there to blow their tubas for the team with Robert Griffin III on it, after all. They felt lucky because they believed they were.
Daniel Snyder's people overbooked the press box, which meant that my co-writer and I were assigned to spots at a folding table facing a small flat-screen television. The tables had scratchy black tablecloths thrown over them and Radio Shack-y surge protectors set up on top. Our backs were to the field, and anyway even if we had stood and turned around we would not have been able to see the field.
We left and bought tickets from the box office inside the stadium. You can read about all this elsewhere, and it's worth mentioning only because it wound up being the best possible decision, the choice to be outside, on an unseasonably warm day and at the roaring center of the weather system that Griffin created.
That Griffin ran and threw and led brilliantly during his rookie season obviously had a lot to do with the bright, high-skied microclimate that he conjured over what had been a doomed, relentlessly self-thwarting organization. Fans go to games no matter what, out of force of habit or loyalty or a dearth of other socially acceptable excuses for brunchtime binge-drinking. But while Griffin gave his team a better chance to win and ran and threw and willed his team to a few memorable, seemingly no-chance-at-all victories, there was also a bigger thing at work, here. Bigger, certainly, than 10 wins or a playoff appearance or any other forgettable thing.
And bigger, too, than the moment when Griffin -- playing on a patchy, piebald field, and on a knee he'd injured badly and obviously earlier in the game -- reached for a football and had his knee dart determinedly in the opposite direction. Seasons end, for players and teams alike, in those moments. Careers end. But this was not that, and Robert Griffin III is throwing passes in training camp with his team, and the weather is changing again, and all this is very good.
This is a good thing in itself, because the self-authored gravity of a Robert Griffin III performance -- the way his poise and talent alternately quiet the game to a museum's hush and recut it into real-time highlights set to frantic music -- is one of the best things to watch in sports. It's also good because watching Robert Griffin III do the things he does is a reminder of the rude heart -- the wild, violent, awesome thing that football can be in the moment -- beating under and inside the NFL's awful bloat.
The NFL remains as craven and shame-resistant and self-satirizing and multiply objectionable as ever. It has been a long and ugly offseason, and it's not over yet. The team that employs Griffin remains one of the NFL's less lovable sub-enterprises, gouging fans without shame and spending millions to spin its slur of a name into some sort of denatured aspirational brand. All bad, all oppressive and present and not necessarily going anywhere.
But on the other hand: Robert Griffin III, throwing passes and cutting and being himself on a football field.
Griffin's on-field truth doesn't excuse or cancel any of the ugliness and synergistic pettifoggery of the bigger enterprise, of course. If anything, the contrast his brilliance creates is a reminder of just what this transaction is. Football and Robert Griffin III are captivating and alive and strange; there is nothing really like it. The NFL is an alternately pompous and crass business enterprise leveraged and re-leveraged on all that, and Griffin's team is a particularly hideous remora riding that leviathan, mumbling something about pride. That is, the NFL and its Washington franchise are disconcertingly like a disconcertingly large number of things in our culture at the moment.
Forget his numbers and awards and measurables and intangibles, and consider that in this ghoulish, shameless, self-satirizing league, on this drearily emblematic team, the likelihood of Griffin getting back under center nearly gets us back to even. That's what he does, and what he means, and what he's worth. Hate his team all you like, disdain the league and its smug evasions and idiot appropriations and appalling corporate callousness. What Robert Griffin III does, and what a few other players do, is the reason why any of this can exist. Without what he does, the league's a loud pile of brands and money in a too-expensive suit, a very expensive corpse. He's the life in it.
So: Griffin's knee went in its MC Escher-ian direction and the game ended. The drunks went back into the parking lot or just went home, and we went down into the locker rooms. I saw Trent Williams, as wide as a sedan and near tears, not-quite answer some questions about why he punched Richard Sherman. I saw Snyder, with the anti-gravitas of me on my Bar Mitzvah day, pacing the training room in a too-big suit and a yellow Redskins hat. A whole glacial moraine of hairy-bellied linemen getting dressed in silence.
In a corner, the tight end Logan Paulsen was shocked and slumped at his locker. "I just wanted to get over to him and make sure he didn't try to stand up," he said when asked why he rushed to Griffin's side after that last knee-buckle. "Because he always tries to do that."
And then Griffin came out, still in his pads, and sat at his locker for a long time. Later, he'd follow Mike Shanahan -- clipped, Air Force-y diction from a tight orange face -- and London Fletcher at the podium in the media room. Griffin was almost certainly either in agonizing pain or aloft on an opioid cloud, but he handled questions with grace. No, he wouldn't have been out there if he hadn't thought he could play. Yes, trainers had said he could go. (This part wound up being more complicated.) The destroyed field? "That's just part of our home field advantage," he joked. He was defiant and poised and then he left, to go home and get his knee rebuilt.
But before that, my co-writer saw something that I didn't. I didn't look at Griffin, after a while, as he sat at his locker, because he seemed to need privacy. I saw him begin to remove the mile or so of tape on his body and looked away; anyway, he wasn't taking questions. But my friend swears he saw this -- that Griffin unrolled some black tape from around his wrist and balled it up, then casually threw it into a garbage can halfway across the room.
No one but my friend saw him do this. No one but my friend can confirm that Griffin then looked at him, from the depths of wherever he was, and winked. But for all the silly, stupid, often actively ugly implausibilities that the NFL and its branded myth asks you to believe, ask yourself whether you can believe that Griffin did that. Ask whether anything else about the NFL is half as convincing.