Nothing inspires hope quite like a young quarterback.
It is the NFL equivalent of a blank check, a license to dream, and in this quarterback-driven league the only thing more exciting than having one of the league’s truly elite players at that position is the moment of discovery when your team finds one.
That is why Seattle’s game at Washington is the most anticipated of the league’s wild-card weekend, a curtain call scheduled for this afternoon. It’s not just what Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Washington’s Robert Griffin III mean to their respective teams in this game that has the country watching, but what they mean for the future of the league.
They are two headliners from a draft class that might be responsible for one of the greatest quarterback crops in NFL history, and each team can enter today’s game adamant in the conviction it has a quarterback capable of future championships.
“Against all of the odds and the history and stuff like that, they have just been amazing to take their teams into the playoffs,” coach Pete Carroll said. “It’ll be great to see how it goes and we hope our guy does really well.”
They have similar skill sets and nearly identical statistics, but they followed very different paths this season only to wind up intersecting at FedEx Field in a game that has everyone wondering how the two rookies will stack up.
“You never play quarterbacks in this league as a quarterback,” Griffin said. “You play defenses. I’ll leave the comparisons up to you guys.”
Well, if you insist.
For starters, Robert Griffin III became the player who would define Mike Shanahan’s tenure in Washington before he was even drafted.
That tells you how steep a commitment Washington made just to get in position to pick him No. 2 overall behind Andrew Luck. The team traded its first-round pick in each of the next two drafts not to mention a 2012 second-round choice to move up four slots in the draft order to choose the quarterback from Baylor who had track-star speed and so much more.
“We felt he had the other things that you look for in a quarterback,” Shanahan said.
The Seahawks were in the market for a quarterback, too. In a draft deemed to have two top-shelf players at that position, was Seattle tempted to move up from its spot at No. 12 to have a shot at Griffin?
“We just thought he was too far up there,” Carroll said. “We didn’t think we were going to get to that nor would we give up anything of that magnitude to do it.
“(Besides) we had our guy, ace in the hole there. We were waiting.”
That would be Wilson, whom Seattle chose in the third round with the No. 75 overall pick. If the Seahawks truly did land their long-term starting quarterback at that spot, it would amount to a jackpot that would define Carroll’s tenure with the Seahawks every bit as much as Shanahan’s time in Washington will be tied to his acquisition of Griffin.
“An amazing pick for us,” Carroll said of Wilson. “And I think hopefully if our young team grows together and we can really make a push to be consistent and win, that draft pick and this past draft is going to be really a significant part of why were successful in all that.”
It’s more than just three inches of height and two rounds in the draft that separates these two. Because while Washington committed to Griffin before it selected him, Wilson had to convince the Seahawks he was worthy of the starting job.
That difference helps explain why Washington began the season with an offense centered on Griffin’s talents while the Seahawks were scrounging for points with a boiled-down version of the playbook up until the end of November.
From the moment Washington drafted Griffin, he was being prepared to be the starter while as recently as August, Wilson was splitting practice repetitions in a three-way competition with incumbent starter Tarvaris Jackson and free-agent acquisition Matt Flynn.
So while Washington began modifying its offense to include option plays that suited Griffin’s speed, the Seahawks didn’t begin using Wilson in the option until the second half of the season.
Griffin completed six passes of 20 yards or more in Washington’s first game of the season, including an 88-yard touchdown to Pierre Garcon. After four games, Wilson had a combined total of six completions of 20 yards or more. Griffin rushed for 476 yards in the first eight games of the season, Wilson had 128.
That’s only half the story, though. It’s what happened over the final eight games that explains why Seattle has reached this point behind Wilson.
It wasn’t just Wilson’s 1-yard touchdown run last week that showed how far he has come this season.
It wasn’t just the 90-yard drive that play capped, either, though it was an impressive demonstration of that wide array of talents that have made Wilson so effective so early in his career.
It was Carroll’s instructions at the beginning of that drive, which best illustrated how his quarterback’s role has expanded: “Make sure we get plenty of chances to see what he could do.”
Griffin has had that opportunity since the season began in Washington, but it was only the past six games or so that Wilson became the Seahawks’ trump card. He’s run for more yards than Griffin over the past eight games and thrown for more touchdowns.
And that brings us to this playoff game, Seattle arriving with the hope that its rookie will continue his role while Washington waits to see if Griffin can recover that spark he had before suffering a sprained knee in early December.
Wilson’s team went 7-1 over the second half of the season to finish with its best record since 2005. Griffin’s team also went 7-1 in the final eight games, winning its first division title since 1999.
And while they may not find themselves on the field at the same time once today’s game starts, they will be sharing a stage.
“It makes it a lot more exciting for the fans,” Griffin said. “I think it makes a great story for the media. I think when it comes down to players, we don’t view ourselves as rookie against rookie.
“We’re just two football players, two quarterbacks trying to help our teams win.”