LANDOVER, Md. -- They streamed out into this surprisingly warm December night, more than 80,000 intensely loyal fans of a franchise that hasn't mattered in December for quite some time. They grinned. They hooted. They pumped fists, slapped five and chanted the same three thumping syllables: "R-G-3! R-G-3!"
They are the fired-up fans of the Washington Redskins, winners of three straight games, including this 17-16 "Monday Night Football" slugfest over the first-place, defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants. Their team sits a game out of first place and on the edge of the NFC wild-card race with four games left in the season. And the syllables stand for the 22-year-old quarterback who has made it all possible.
"There's a lot of excitement around this team right now," Robert Griffin III said. "And I think everybody's feeling it."
This is unquestionably the case, outside the Redskins' locker room and in, and Griffin is the centrifugal reason. He is the franchise player for whom the Redskins happily traded three first-round picks and a second-round pick, because they knew that the process of building a core group around your quarterback is far less stressful when you're no longer worried about your quarterback. And Griffin has delivered, repeatedly. But what has been happening over these past three weeks is the emergence of the young group he has got around him on offense. And Monday night's victory managed to do something few have been able to do this year -- slide Griffin into something less than the starring role.
The MVP of this game for Washington was rookie Alfred Morris, a tireless skee-ball of a running back who fits Mike Shanahan's offense with utter perfection, building a head of steam, spotting the hole, hitting the hole and running as far as he can before he gets tackled. If you want to know what the Redskins like about Morris, all you have to do is watch the tape of this game, in which he picked up 124 yards on 22 carries. He was the engine of a Redskins' offense that was determined to stick with the run even though it was behind in the second half and seemingly couldn't get on the field. And after a costly third-quarter red-zone fumble that led to three points for the Giants, Morris returned more determined than ever. He got 58 of his yards on 11 carries after the fumble, including the critical third-down pickup that finished off the game with a minute to go.
"I'm not going to take any credit for Alfred's success," Griffin said. "Except maybe for lifting with him in the offseason, helping him get stronger, maybe. I look forward to playing with him for many years. And I've told people, if I had a vote for rookie of the year, I'd vote for him."
Griffin also likely could not have beaten the Giants on Monday night without the help of 26-year-old wide receiver Pierre Garcon, the ballyhooed (and somewhat criticized) big-money free-agent signee who missed six games earlier this year with a foot injury but has returned to something resembling full strength in the three games since the bye. Garcon had 106 yards and a touchdown on eight catches. He is big and explosive and offers Griffin a downfield option that had been missing from his arsenal for much of the year.
"I think everybody could see over the last couple of weeks how much he means to our football team," Shanahan said. "Every time he touches the football, he has a chance to go the distance. I love the way he competes, in the running game as well as the passing game. He's a smart player, and he's been a big plus for us."
The list goes on. There is 27-year-old linebacker Rob Jackson, who has been asked to replace injured top pass-rusher Brian Orakpo. After failing to generate pressure on Eli Manning and allowing the Giants to convert 8 of 10 third downs and possess the ball for 20:32 in the first half, the Redskins made a number of defensive adjustments. One of the key ones was to turn Jackson loose on third downs. The pressure increased, and in the second half the Giants were 1-for-5 on third down and possessed the ball for just 12:41.
And there was left tackle Trent Williams, a 24-year-old whose 2011 season ended in drug-suspension disgrace but who has emerged this year as one of the best offensive linemen in the league. Williams bruised his thigh in the Thanksgiving Day victory over the Cowboys and was listed as questionable for this game. He played, and afterward I asked him how he felt.
"I feel like [crap]," Williams said. "But they didn't get any sacks, right?"
They did not. The Super Bowl champion Giants, famous for their pass rush, did not sack Griffin once Monday night. They hit him a few times, but he bounced back up and kept helping the Redskins grind out tough yardage while the defense worked to get on track and Morris banged away at the Giants' front. He stayed patient, which is one of his most impressive qualities, given his age, and which rubs off on the rest of his emerging young team.
"A ton of maturity," 37-year-old linebacker London Fletcher said. "It's really refreshing to see young guys like Alfred and Robert, who carry themselves like that. It says a lot about the future and where this team is headed with them leading it."
All of that is a lot of fun, and the main reason those Redskins fans left here chanting. Griffin has brought excitement and hope for the future to a fan base that has endured a long, difficult period of quarterback struggles and failed seasons. No matter how this season turns out, Griffin has energized this team, this place and these fans.
But in the short term, there is the matter of this three-game winning streak that has thrust this Redskins team, with all of its youth and all of its defensive flaws, into the thick of the 2012 playoff race. There is the matter of four games over the next four weeks in which Griffin, Morris, Garcon and the Redskins will believe in and push for a chance to get into the tournament and compete for this year's Super Bowl. Whether they have looked, at any time this year, like a team that could do that is immaterial. They are 6-6, and that puts you in the race, and the immediate impact of Monday night's game is summed up in this from Fletcher:
"We just made things very interesting."
Griffin has made things very interesting indeed for the Redskins, for this December and likely for a long time to come. And if the group around him keeps coming together the way it has since early November, it's hard to put a realistic limit on what he can achieve.