Rare enough that Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson have had such splendid rookie seasons. Then to meet in the playoffs . . . this is how great sports rivalries start.
Ali-Frazier, Chamberlain-Russell, Palmer-Nicklaus, Rice-Sanders, Federer-Nadal.
Where does Russell Wilson vs. Robert Griffin III fit in the sports pantheon of great individual rivalries?
Um, well, nowhere. Yet. But we’ll all be checking in Sunday night on the topic, right? No reason not to get a head start now.
We’re on our own. We’ll get no help from the participants.
“I try to stay away from that kind of stuff,” Griffin said Wednesday on a teleconference. “I feel like the media is going to do all the comparisons, so it’s not my job to try to compare me and Russell. I’ve told people many times, and it’s an old cliché, you never play quarterbacks in this league as a quarterback, you play defenses.”
Of course, he’s right. He plays, media and fans compare. It’s been the sporting deal for some time now. What Griffin, Wilson and all athletes preparing for the crucible don’t recall from their childhoods is that anticipation is the intoxicant of sports competition. Imagination can make many of us dizzy fast.
It’s why we drink . . . er, watch.
The matchup of the Seahawks and Redskins Sunday providentially brought together for the first time two of the most remarkable figures of the NFL season. As quarterbacks, of course they don’t play against each other. That doesn’t stop anyone who is impartial yet passionate about pro ball from savoring this game more than the other three on wild-card weekend. Nor does it stop Seahawks and Redskins fans from imagining years of success starting Sunday.
Under the sign marked “Hyperbole,” feel free to hit the big red button. Let the ooga horn wail. As a culture absorbed with The Next Big Thing, Russell vs. Griffin is it, at least for the first week of 2013. The Highly Ambulatory Killer App.
No intent is made to slight Indianapolis’s Andrew Luck, who is also a rookie, also a QB and having a superb season leading the Indianapolis Colts to the playoffs. But since three-sided football has yet to be invented, it’s a little hard. But we’ll try.
For a look at comparative numbers of all three, Sportspress Northwest offers this chart here. For a comparative NFL history of debut seasons with young quarterbacks, Redskins coach Mike Shanahan offers this observation.
“This year is really different,” he said. “If you take a look at the last 40 years and first-round draft choices, there’s only seven quarterbacks with a winning record. Seven in 40 years. There’s a lot of Hall of Fame players in there, and we have three this year. That is quite unusual.
“I think it has something to do with colleges preparing these guys better for the pro game a lot more. They’re throwing (more) at the college level. I think we (in the NFL) have a little more time to spend with players in the off-season with meetings and then training camp to get somebody ready.”
To turn up the hyperbole, we offer the views of the Jedi master of the exclamation point-as-light-saber, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll.
“Luck is a classic quarterback,” he said. “He’s got everything you want. He’s maybe 250 pounds — big and strong and fast for a big dude. He’s been ahead of his time since he was in college. More so than the other two guys, (the Colts have) really been committed to the throwing game.
“RGIII, he has all of those (TV) commercials for a reason. He’s been just incredible. Even now, coming back from injury, he’s still playing well and still executing great game plans. He’s just an amazing player. All three of these guys have great accuracy for young guys. In particular, Robert has had a great year in completion percentage — over 70 percent for a lot of the season, which is amazing. Then he rushed for 800 yards. He’s been incredible.
“Russell has had a fantastic season. He’s done everything that we could’ve hoped for. We (started him right away) and he took off and ran with it. He’s been highly efficient. He’s a guy that you can trust absolutely with taking care of the ball, which is the number one aspect of our program. He’s been dynamic, a great leader, and a great kid. This is just a fantastic class.”
The fact that all three showed up in the same season to take teams with losing records to the playoffs is astonishing. Since Luck and Griffin were the first two players drafted, expectations were high, but both exceeded those expectations. As a third-round pick, Wilson is so far off the charts that he might come around to lap them.
To watch such youth take such command so soon ignites the belief that all three teams are set for years. The Redskins already designated Griffin as team captain.
“It meant a lot that my teammates trusted me as their captain even though I’m a 22-year-old young man,” Griffin said. “They look to me as their leader. I thought that was huge. It just speaks a lot about how they feel about me.”
In a must-win game Sunday, Griffin led Washington over Dallas 28-18 despite a sore knee hurt three weeks ago that cost him some earlier game time. He won’t be 100 percent for the Seattle matchup, a development that qualified, barely, the Harding-Kerrigan analogy above.
If the Seahawks prevail in part because Griffin was physically limited, that will be cited by his adherents as the reason. If the Redskins triumph despite his limp, his superhero status will grow. If the Seahawks lose, it will be blamed partly on Wilson’s inexperience on the stage. If the Seahawks win in the nation’s capital, Wilson becomes a cultural phenomenon.
Not all of it will be quite deserved and all of it will be overdone. Which is a fundamental characteristic of rivalry — passion wrapped in myth. May it last a good long while.