Postcard from camp: Redskins
Everybody, including his teammates, are raving about Robert Griffin III's potential
With Tim Hightower, Roy Helu Jr. and Evan Royster, Redskins are stacked at RB
Five division games in the last seven will ultimately decide the Redskins' season
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Don Banks had to say about Redskins camp in Ashburn, Va., which he visited on July 26. Read all of our postcards here.
At Redskins Park in steamy Ashburn, Va., where Washington's NFL team kicked off its 2012 training camp with a keep-those-liquids-handy, 100-degree-heat index day in the sun. I can't remember ever coming to Redskins camp without enduring a humidity-laden sweat-fest, but this one was a scorcher even by Washington-area standards. Fortunately, the Redskins' new practice bubble is finally up and functional, and the team headed indoors for its morning 90-minute walkthrough session. But there was no escaping the soaring temperatures in the afternoon practice, which started at 3 p.m. I think I saw several bugs melt in mid-air.
1. I've never visited a camp that featured more buzz about a rookie quarterback. And it's not just Redskins fans and the media who are going gonzo about Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III. Washington's players can't stop raving about the guy. I don't remember Rex Grossman or John Beck inspiring this much enthusiasm last year, but perhaps my memory is as hazy as the hot weather.
I talked to a half dozen Redskins or so during my camp visit, and I have yet to hear anyone say that people just need to just hold their horses and let the kid play a game before he's lionized. You know, as Bill Parcells loves to say, "Let's not put him in Canton just yet.'' I'm not surprised by the build-up. When was the last time the Redskins had a player who could make everyone around him better, make everyone believe and make everyone want to follow him? Griffin is 3-for-3 in those rare categories.
"Being around this game for a number of years now, you can kind of tell when you meet guys who have it,'' Redskins inside linebacker London Fletcher said. "I think he's on his way. He wants to be the best quarterback he can be right now.''
I'm a RGIII backer. I think he's for real and is going to be one of the most talked about playmakers in the league this season. In time I expect he'll join the ranks of the game's elite quarterbacks. But patience, I predict, will not be practiced here. Both the Redskins and their rabid fans are starved for success, and they see RGIII as the chosen one who can deliver it. Right now.
2. It's going to be an intriguing competition at running back in Redskins-ville. You've got veteran Tim Hightower coming off last year's ACL injury, and even though he might not be all the way back physically, he might have the inside track to the No. 1 job. But you can't discount second-year man Roy Helu Jr., who sparked the running game as a rookie in midseason before wearing down late, or fellow second-year veteran Evan Royster, who ripped off 100-yard rushing games in Weeks 16 and 17 when Helu was nicked up. Rookie Alfred Morris, a sixth-round pick out of Florida Atlantic, is another name to keep track of, after a decent showing during minicamp.
If Hightower is healthy enough, he's probably the rusher the coaches trust most to do everything well enough, including those all-important blitz pickup duties, which are even more critical in protecting a rookie quarterback like Griffin. Helu is the best pure runner, with a great burst, but size-wise (5-foot-11, 215 pounds)he might not be suited for true No. 1 duties, making him more of a change-of-pace option on 12-15 plays per game. Royster was very productive, with a team-high 5.9-yard average carry last year, but doesn't have the speed to make many tacklers miss. Hightower should win the starting slot, but Helu and Royster could force Washington into more of a three-headed backfield as the season progresses.
3. Another summer, another ex-Bengals kicker is on hand to challenge Redskins kicker Graham Gano. Last year, Gano beat out one-time Bengal Shayne Graham in the preseason and retained the job he won late in the 2009 season. This time, it's Neil Rackers who will provide the camp competition. The Redskins have invested a lot of time and energy into Gano and they love the strength of his leg. But they want Rackers to push him and bring out the best in him. Last year he was just 31 of 41 on field goals, but with an astounding five kicks blocked. That trend has to reverse itself. It's clearly Gano's job to lose, but with a shaky August, he could force the Redskins to change directions.
Josh Morgan, receiver. Put me down for expecting a big comeback season from the ex-49ers pass catcher, who was on his way to career-best numbers last year when he suffered a broken leg in garbage time of a 48-3 San Francisco blowout of visiting Tampa Bay in Week 5. Morgan signed what amounts to a two-year, $12 million deal with the Redskins in free agency, and the Washington-area native is thrilled to be the most likely candidate to run under some of those rainbow bombs RGIII likes to launch (usually when he's on the run).
Morgan had 15 catches for 220 yards and a 14.7-yard average last season in his five games, and he combined to grab 96 passes in 2009-10. And that was with the likes of Alex Smith, Troy Smith and Shaun Hill throwing him the ball. Morgan isn't yet all the way back from last October's injury, but he was on the field and running well with the Redskins' first team on Thursday, and he's sensing something good building in D.C.
"I feel like that because I just went through this in San Francisco last year,'' said Morgan, of the 49ers' breakthrough 13-3 season. "It was the same type of feeling we had. You feel it before you see it. I think we're going to overachieve and surprise some people.''
Raheem Morris, DB coach. Almost every other newcomer has been rendered invisible by the overwhelming reaction to the savior-status arrival of Griffin this spring, but the Redskins do have another fresh face who could make a quick impact. Morris, the former Bucs head coach, is the team's new defensive backs coach, and improving a secondary that recorded a mere 10 interceptions last year is now his sole focus. Morris, 35, was canned in Tampa Bay after his 2011 Bucs started 4-2 and then skidded to a 10-game season-ending losing streak. His coaching reputation took a hit with that high-profile flame-out, but Morris is plenty young enough to recover from that setback. And he can still coach some defense, and motivate players.
"One of the things that can't be underestimated is the addition of Raheem Morris,'' said Fletcher, the team's defensive leader. "He's phenomenal, just watching him, listening to him coach. You can see why he was promoted to head coach at such a young age. His style of coaching will help those guys even play better.''
Those Redskins fans clamoring to see if Griffin can reproduce Cam Newton's early rookie-season magic of 2011 won't be watching much of it live and in person. Unless they're willing to make some road trips. Washington starts the season with three away games in the first four weeks, and all told has only three home dates before Nov. 4. But the early-season schedule is the lighter load to lift. The Redskins open against the fired-up and revenge-seeking Saints in the Superdome in Week 1 (Griffin's hometown of New Orleans), play at St. Louis with new head coach Jeff Fisher in Week 2 and travel to Tampa Bay in Week 4. Only in Week 3's home opener against Cincinnati can Griffin give the Redskins faithful something to scream about at FedEx Field.
But the real gauntlet for Washington and its prized rookie starts in Week 7, when it opens a brutal seven-game stretch that will test Griffin against some of the league's better defenses and all three NFC East rivals: Week 7 at the Giants, Week 8 at Pittsburgh, Week 9 vs. Carolina (the Cam vs. RGIII Bowl), Week 11 vs. Philadelphia, Week 12 at Dallas (on Thanksgiving), Week 13 vs. Giants and Week 14 vs. Baltimore. A whopping five of Washington's final seven games are in the division, so the Redskins will either get to make their move from mid-November on, or they'll have to settle for the spoiler role once the weather turns cool.