TAMPA, Fla. – Robert Griffin III came through the tunnel after a preseason game in which he didn't play, galloping while his teammates slugged along.
"You know what this means?" a team official yelled at him. "It's Houston week!"
Griffin let out a whoop as he ducked into the Washington Redskins' locker room.
He came out a few moments later, meeting with the media after a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers even though a starting quarterback rarely speaks after a fourth preseason game. He didn't stand against the team's logo-covered backdrop, as is his usual place. He stood against a wall and took all questions.
"Totally different," Griffin said with a grin when asked how he felt at this point compared to a year ago. "It's Houston week!"
It is totally different this year. Last year at this time, Griffin was one of the top stars of the NFL show, returning in less than eight months from an ACL tear he suffered in his first and only playoff game as a pro. This year, the Heisman winner from a Texas school causing the most stir is in Cleveland, and Griffin is drawing discussion only about whether he's really better than his backup, Kirk Cousins.
This is a little bit silly. Sure, Griffin has looked poor in the preseason – hesitant and hemmed in, much like he did during parts of last season. Washington didn't score a touchdown with him on the field. Team analyst and Redskins great Joe Theismann said a real competition with Cousins would land Griffin on the bench. And yes, this comes after an aborted season in which Griffin looked enervated or miserable or both.
Yet there's far more reason for positive hype this opening week than there was for overhype in both of Griffin's first seasons. In Year 1, he was a rookie with few weapons. In Year 2, he was coming off a major injury and he had a head coach he didn't seem to like.
Now? He's got DeSean Jackson, fresh from Philadelphia. He's got Jay Gruden, fresh from Cincinnati. He's got two seasons of experience behind him. He's got a soft-ish schedule in a weakened NFC East. And he's got a fully healed knee. There probably wasn't enough skepticism about Griffin before. Now there may be too much.
In the post-Adrian Peterson era, the expectation for a football player with an ACL tear is one offseason of rehab. In the real world, return-to-play precedes return-to-normal by several months.
"It can be up to a year to get back to playing," said Michael Jablonski, former team physician for the Orlando Magic, who trained under Dr. James Andrews and has performed many ACL repair surgeries on athletes. "Stiffness is common. It certainly is possible [to return to form in one offseason] but it's not the norm. A year is much more reasonable."
A year removed from Griffin's injury got him to 2014, after a full season of league-wide judging whether he had recovered fully. And that year doesn't account for the fact that Griffin also tore his LCL. Surgeries on both the ligaments complicated healing because, in Jablonski's words, "you're trying to restore stability in more than one plane." Griffin, as we all know, is dangerous to defenses in more than one plane. It's unlikely he felt comfortable for most if not all of last season, and former coach Mike Shanahan benched him at the end of the year. This moment – the start of the 2014 season – is why the former coach preserved the franchise quarterback.
The other major cause for new optimism is the new coach. Whether or not you blame Griffin or Shanahan for the latter's ouster last season, the union between them was uncomfortable. Gruden is a former quarterback who will do everything he can to make his No. 1 passer comfortable. Griffin won't be criticized for leaving the pocket.
"It fits me the best of any offense I've been in," said third-string quarterback Colt McCoy, who is also a thrower with running ability. "In Jay's offense, it gives Robert a chance to be really good. It allows us to use our skills, throwing or running, and it allows us to make plays with our feet."
McCoy said he felt comfortable both running and passing throughout Thursday's game: "We could have done it all night."
Griffin said that under Gruden, "It's easy to see the game through his eyes."
Now consider the addition of Jackson, one of the better receivers in the league. Griffin has benefited from having Pierre Garcon as a target, but the speedier Jackson is one of the best weapons he's had in his short career. Even Alfred Morris, more of a traditional running back, has worked this offseason on pass-catching out of the backfield. Griffin's targets will move with him more so than in the past.
On the first page of the first chapter of "RG3: The Promise," author Dave Sheinin describes the ideal of "The Perfect Quarterback," and recalls that leading up to the 2012 NFL draft, "certain observers around the league, including some high up in the Washington Redskins organization, were beginning to think the closest thing to it anyone had seen in a long, long time was hurtling toward the NFL in the form of Baylor University quarterback Robert Griffin III."
Despite the fact that Griffin has had only one complete, healthy season, a lot of "observers around the league" surely wonder if Griffin is viable, let alone perfect.
This season, however, is his best shot so far to be the quarterback everyone envisioned when he entered the league. We all have a good idea how good Cousins could be; Griffin's potential is unknown and potentially untapped.
That may not be reason for the kind of mania Griffin inspired in the past, but it certainly warrants a gallop and a whoop at the start of Houston week.