- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW ORLEANS -- The defense doesn't always watch its own offense very closely, choosing instead to spend its time on the sideline getting its rest, going over the plays of the drive just past and the plans for the next one. But now that Robert Griffin III is their quarterback, the Washington Redskins' defenders find they can't help themselves.
"He's captivating," Redskins nose tackle Barry Cofield said after Griffin led the Redskins to a 40-32 upset victory over the Saints in the first game of his NFL career. "I'm always watching that kid, all week in practice. You can't help but watch him."
Linebacker London Fletcher is in his sixth season with the Redskins, and during his time in Washington, he has played on defenses that have had very little margin for error, so unreliable was the play of their offenses in general and their quarterbacks in particular. Fletcher smiled when asked what it was like to watch Griffin's debut -- he was 19-of-26 for 320 yards and two touchdowns -- from that sideline bench.
"From our standpoint, defensively," Fletcher said, "he's a sight for sore eyes."
Mike Shanahan is in his third year as the Redskins' head coach. The first two did little to enhance his reputation as an offensive mastermind. But he was practically giddy after the game when asked about Pierre Garcon's 88-yard touchdown catch.
"This is the first time we've had a receiver who, when he catches the ball on the slant, can run all the way to the end zone," Shanahan said.
What's changed about the Redskins with the arrival of Griffin? How about everything? The feeling this team has about its quarterback right now can be summed up in many different words. Faith. Confidence. Hope. Pride. Excitement. But every single one of them is an upgrade over what they felt about their quarterbacks last year. Or the year before that. Or the year before that. And no offense to Rex Grossman or John Beck or 2010 Donovan McNabb or Jason Campbell, but this is what it looks like to have a real NFL quarterback taking snaps for your team. It makes your pregame meal taste better, the artificial turf under your feet seem greener. When you don't have a quarterback in the NFL, life is week-to-week misery. When you do, everything feels that much better.
"This was a good start," Shanahan said of the victory. "By no means did we play perfect, but we have a lot of things to build on and a lot of things to feel good about."
The quarterback is front and center among them. Yes, the Redskins' defensive backs looked great in man coverage against the Saints' receivers. Yes, the defensive front was able to pressure Drew Brees. And yes, rookie running back Alfred Morris played very well. But the story of this game, and of this Redskins season, is Griffin. Not a single person in the Redskins' locker room deflected a Griffin question with a trite "team effort" cliche. Everybody was perfectly happy to gush.
"Just the way he handled the game, you know?" Garcon said. "This is a very difficult place to play and to run your offense. The crowd noise, the emotion all working against you. But he just gives you so much confidence that he's got it under control."
This is a rookie quarterback, in his first game, and he's got veteran teammates believing that he can do whatever is needed on a given play. Fletcher started ticking off specific plays. The second-and-9 when he sidestepped the rush and found Fred Davis for 26 yards on the right side. The third-and-6 on which he could have run for the first down but instead waited a beat and found Santana Moss for 27 yards up the left side. The fourth-and-1 from the Saints' 33-yard line on which he fired a strike to Aldrick Robinson and drew a pass interference call that set up the touchdown that made the score a mind-boggling 27-14.
"When you see a play breaking down and he's able to roll out of the pocket, stay cool, be patient and turn it into something, that's talent," Fletcher said. "He made some plays today where you see why we were so excited to get him."
First game. Rookie quarterback. Growing pains. All of that is true and worth pointing out. It won't always look as good as it did Sunday for Griffin. This is a difficult league in which to play, and teams will watch him and find ways to beat him. The Redskins are not gong 16-0, and they remain a work in progress.
But there's no way not to be impressed. The three other rookie quarterbacks who were making their debuts at the same time threw a combined total of 10 interceptions in their three losses, and none of them was playing in the Superdome. It is clear that Griffin is legit -- a real quarterback, of whom big things can justifiably be expected. And the Redskins and the way they felt when they boarded their flight home Sunday night are living proof of just how much it means to have a real quarterback at long last.
"Nothing's ever perfect," Griffin said as he spoke to the media, holding the ball he'd thrown to Garcon for his first career touchdown. "There are some passes I wish I had back, some plays I'd like to try again. But we won the game and we did a good job, so I'm going to be happy about that."
A lot of people in Washington are going to be happy about what Griffin did Sunday, and what it appears he's set up to do going forward. RG3 has undoubtedly arrived, and just by doing so he has changed everything for the Redskins.