Memo To Robert Griffin III: Fan-Love Is Not Unconditional

Even though he’s recovering from a devastating injury, life may never be as good for Robert Griffin III as it is right now. His team mortgaged much of its future to trade for him, and he exceeded expectations. At 23, he’s a unifying source in a city whose primary industry is fueled by polarity. He is cash money for media, both locally and nationally. He is the rare NFL player who can call himself a singular, individual star.

This was never clearer than on Sunday afternoon, when Griffin posted a picture on Twitter from his home, his feet planted on his hardwood floors and his back resting on dozens of empty boxes, once full of wedding gifts sent from Redskins fans. He looked totally satisfied, perfectly aware that this isn’t just how star quarterbacks are treated – this is how Robert Griffin is treated in Washington. Right now, he’s that big.

Right now.

Hopefully, behind that smirk is an understanding of how tenuous his place is in the hearts of Redskin fans. There is no unconditional love in the NFL. No one season – not even one as dynamic as Griffin’s rookie campaign – can make a player bulletproof, if it ended with a loss. Today’s love can quickly become tomorrow’s disappointment and resentment, and it can happen so quickly that a house full of free stuff wouldn’t be worth the trouble.

And, through no fault of his own, Griffin is closer to that tipping point than he seems to realize.

Griffin is recovering from torn knee ligaments, which he suffered when his coaches treated him like some combination of a racehorse and John Henry. They ran him until he couldn’t go anymore, and he didn’t stop because there was work to be done. The coaches were as stupid as Griffin was noble, but that can’t be changed. Now, with Adrian Peterson looking for another 2,000 yards rushing this season, and after Derrick Rose’s credibility was wrecked by his decision to sit out the full year, all eyes will be on Griffin and his return to the field.

When training camps open, this will be the biggest story of the NFL season. A player this exciting, coming off a successful campaign, playing for a team with a national following would guarantee that. But right now, we have no idea when he will play again or how he’ll look when he does.

That’s why this story could also be the ugliest.

Adidas, the shoe company that pays Griffin, wants him back, Week 1. The NFL, which has the Redskins scheduled for the first Monday Night Football game of the season, would like the same. Washington head coach Mike Shanahan, whose job was saved – and reputation, in part, redeemed – when Griffin came to town, must want the same. Fans? They don’t send wedding gifts to guys who don’t play.

In fact, the only person who doesn’t stand to gain from Griffin’s early return…is Griffin. We saw that last season, when he led his team to the playoffs while injured and ended his year in a heap on FedEx Field’s indefensibly bad turf. The ’Skins drafted Kirk Cousins to protect themselves from worst-case scenario, but Griffin could take out no such insurance on himself. It’s his career – not Dr. James Andrews’ or anyone else’s – that will be at peril if he returns prematurely. He learned the hard way that he isn’t invincible, but he plays a game that ignores that part of his humanity. Griffin has been treated like an indestructible superhero, and he’s expected to behave like one, even though we’ve been made perfectly aware that he’s no such thing.

Clearly, Griffin recognizes that. But, as we’ve seen from Rose’s case, Griffin’s reputation could suffer if he takes his time returning. The fans, who saw him as a savior, may look for him to save them from Cousins, or Shanahan, or any of the other things that made Washington so hapless before No. 10 suited up in burgundy and gold. And if he’s not there, there won’t be much understanding; at least, not for long.

Fans watch players, but they love the jerseys they wear. The affection Griffin has received is accentuated by his singularity, but it will disappear if that does nothing for the Redskins, the fans’ true love. Sure, having gifts lavished upon him should make Griffin smile. But hubris could make for a fall just as nasty as the one he suffered against Seattle in January.

They love him? No, they love what he can do. And they’ll stop as soon as he doesn’t – or can’t.

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