Healthy Robert Griffin looking to lead Baylor to Promised Land
Baylor had high hopes for 2009, but season crumbled after Griffin injury
The lighting-quick QB says he's faster now than before he tore his ACL
Bears are 4-66 against Big 12 South since 1996, in 15-year bowl drought
Clearly, Robert Griffin III's confidence wasn't torn along with his ACL. The Baylor quarterback, who already could have been mistaken for Edwin Moses in pads, thinks he may actually be faster after surgery to repair the knee injury that ended his 2009 season, and Baylor's by extension.
"I know nobody expects that," said Griffin, "and that's good."
Nobody expects it, not because the procedure is known to rob a player of his burst, but because Griffin, a former All-America 400-meter hurdler and Olympic hopeful, ranked among the fastest players in the nation the second he committed to Baylor.
Seriously, Robert? Faster?
"I feel like I will be," the redshirt sophomore said. "I've put on some weight and continue to build my strength. The burst will definitely be there and I feel fast right now and I can only imagine how I'll feel in [September]."
Chalk it up to hubris. Chalk it up to gamesmanship. Whatever the name, few words could sound like sweeter music to the players on the Bears roster and the fans who have kept watching through 15 bowless seasons.
Art Briles has grown Baylor's talent pool since taking over as coach in Nov. 2007. His first three recruiting classes included eight total four-star prospects -- the Bears lured all of three four-star kids to Waco in the six years prior -- and he's changed the mindset of a program that has never finished better than fifth in the Big 12 South. But for Briles' work to fully come to fruition, he and the Bears need their electric dual-threat QB at his take-on-the-world best.
Hope sprang in Waco after a dazzling freshman season in which Griffin passed for 2,091 yards and 15 touchdowns and ran for another 843 yards and 13 scores. That hope fizzled three games into the '09 campaign. The injury came on fourth-and-two on the opening series against Northwestern State. There was no contact on the play -- a stroke of misfortune so fitting you had to wonder if the college football gods are determined to keep the Bears under the thumb of the division's beautiful people. Griffin ran out of the option and planted his right foot. His foot turned in and his knee buckled. He heard a pop and lay on the ground for several minutes.
Griffin returned to the field with his knee heavily wrapped and led the Bears on six scoring drives before halftime, but did not return in the second half. A next-day MRI revealed an isolated tear in the ACL; Griffin's season was finished.
"It just felt like I let a lot of people down," Griffin said.
Griffin became a spectator, watching from the sidelines or the press box as Baylor's season crumbled. The Bears dropped four of their next five games. The offense that was built to highlight Griffin's arm and legs averaged less than 300 yards in those defeats.
Through it all, Griffin watched, and for the first time since arriving at Baylor, he was able to simply sit back and learn. Griffin enters this season as the Big 12's third most experienced starter (his 14 career starts put him behind only Iowa State's Austen Arnaud  and Texas A&M's Jerrod Johnson ), but he was thrust into the action four series into his first game as a freshman. The injury allowed him to grab a headset and listen to the coaches work through which plays to call. He watched defenses more closely and pick up on the small tendencies he hadn't had time to notice while directing an offense. He learned how to be a thinking quarterback instead of a reactionary one.
"Granted no one wants to have that kind of injury, but to sit back and watch for once and slow the game down mentally in my head, it helped me learn a lot," Griffin said.
Griffin will try to put those unexpected lessons to use as he and Baylor again attempt to deliver a breakout season and end years of frustration. Since Big 12 play began in 1996, Baylor is 4-66 against its South rivals. But with seven starters back on offense, including Griffin, senior running back Jay Finley, budding star wide receiver Kendall Wright (116 receptions for 1,389 yards and nine TDs over his first two seasons) and a group of three linemen headlined by 6-foot-4, 310-pound left tackle Danny Watkins (whom Briles believes may be the best at his position in the Big 12), Griffin believes the Bears are closing the gap.
"I don't see other teams just out-talenting us on the field anymore with the guys we've got here, with the speed and the strength," Griffin said. "I think everyone is pretty much evenly matched and that's a big thing to say. But with the way the division is looking now and the quarterbacks that have been lost and the way teams played last year, I think it's kind of wide-open."
Griffin's knee may have failed, but the invincible mindset he carried as a sprinter never dissipated. "I'm a confident guy, and I have to be confident for the people who are relying on me," he said.
Griffin will be wearing a brace when he retakes the field. The contraption is a precautionary measure, but it should serve as a reminder of just how fragile Baylor's hopes are. Wide-open field or not, Baylor's bowl dreams depend on its QB. But Griffin isn't going to let that reality, or past misfortunes, change his game, his mentality or his team's focus on securing a bowl bid.
"You've got to just seize the moment," Griffin said. "Anything can happen, and we're looking to make those things happen for us."