Excellence on the field and suaveness off it could make the Redskin's quarterback the NFL's new superstar.
I've long suspected that Roger Goodell is secretly terrified of the day that Peyton Manning retires from professional football. Even though it seems as if nothing can put a dent in the game's immense popularity, Manning is one of the most famous American athletes, and when he hangs up his cleats for good the NFL will lose its most recognizable celebrity. Whether or not you ever watched an Indianapolis Colts game during the past decade, and whether or not you plan on watching a Denver Broncos game this season, you can probably identify Manning from his ubiquitous television commercials or brilliant appearances on Saturday Night Live. Football is a game that is often described with military terminology—players are warriors, games are combat—yet Manning has cultivated an image that is non-threatening and down to earth, accessible to sports fan and non-sports fans alike. Tom Brady, Manning's great rival, is probably the second most recognizable football player today, but his public persona is cool, detached, and distant. Brady is the alpha male with GQ cover-model good looks; Manning is the goofy everyman who makes people laugh by sporting a wig and fake mustache. Fans may aspire to be Brady, but they can better relate to Manning—there isn't an office worker in America who hasn't worn some version of the Manning face after a tough day—and this is why he has been so effective at selling himself and football over the past decade.
So when Manning does retire, which may not be for a few more seasons, the NFL will have significant shoes to fill, and up to this point no young player—not Aaron Rodgers, not Ben Roethlisberger, not Calvin Johnson—has shown he has feet big enough for the task. Enter Robert Griffin III, also known as RG3, the rookie quarterback for the Washington Redskins who has been the most fascinating personality of this nascent NFL season and looks like an individual with the media savvy and star power to become professional football's next big player.
Griffin is not new to the national sports scene. He first made a splash during his junior season at Baylor, when he won the Heisman Trophy and impressed scouts with a combination of athletic ability and consistent downfield passing skills. As good as he was in college, Griffin was still considered the second best pro prospect after Andrew Luck, a quarterback some saw as the next John Elway. When both players declared for the 2012 NFL draft, everyone knew that Luck would be the first quarterback selected and Griffin would be the second, and it was assumed that a pecking order had been established with Luck as the surefire star, the heir to the throne of Manning and Brady, and Griffin as the highly talented number two prospect.
MORE ON FOOTBALL
But sometime over the summer, that dynamic began to shift. Griffin, not Luck, became the most recognizable young star. He landed a number of endorsement deals and started showing up in commercials for products as different as sub sandwiches and sneakers. He exudes a natural charisma in these commercials and looks like he's having a good time. According to an ESPN.com story by Darren Rovell, Griffin has the distinct honor of being the NFL rookie to make the most money before ever setting foot on the field.
Of course, Griffin's ability to be a good corporate spokesperson remained dependent on whether or not he could perform once the season actually started. A player can have more charisma than Ronald Reagan, but he if he or she can't deliver the goods people will stop paying attention. Griffin began to quash any doubts regarding whether he could compete in the NFL when he won NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors after his debut game, and in two turns fitting for a budding celebrity like Griffin, ended up on the cover of Sports Illustrated and inspired an Internet meme that briefly became bigger than Tebowing.
One impressive game does not make a player an NFL star, and even though Griffin followed his debut performance with a solid outing in week two against the St. Louis Rams, it's still too early to make a definitive judgment on whether he can be an All-Pro NFL quarterback for years to come. But one thing that seems like a sure bet at this point is that if Griffin can maintain a relatively high level of play, he has the chops to be a celebrity on par with athletes such as LeBron James and Derek Jeter. This is because off the field Griffin continues to exude that natural star power that is hard to quantify and yet easy to identify. His public persona is somewhere between the polar opposites of Manning and Brady; he's down to earth without being self-deprecating, effortlessly cool without seeming elite and untouchable. Even his name (pronounced Robert Griffin the third) sounds more and more regal every time you hear it. He's intelligent and telegenic and has several other qualities that should help him continue to build his star credentials: