RGIII’s imminent exit is as unbelievable as his arrival

Before “You Like That,” there was “RGIII.”

All those giddy tributes to Kirk Cousins over the past week – the “You Like That” desserts at local grocery stores, the “You Like That” license plates, and especially the “You Like That” chants – carried unmistakable echoes of the 2012 season, when fans rallied behind a different Redskins quarterback.

Not just at FedEx Field, either. During a few of the craziest months in Redskins history, those “RGIII” chants became the soundtrack of the NFL.

“It seemed like every stadium we went to,” Ryan Kerrigan said this week. “He wasn’t just popular here; he was this popular everywhere in the United States.”

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“Every away game we played, the whole stadium was chanting ‘RGIII,’ ” Nick Sundberg agreed. “I mean, that was freaking crazy. You expect that at home. You never expect it at away games. And to see entire crowds of people that don’t even like our team or want anything to do with us falling in love with one player, it was really, really cool to witness. That season was so much fun.”

Those chants, and that fun, are now musty relics tumbling out of a time capsule from some distant century. How did we warp from that ethereal enjoyment to Robert Griffin III packing up his possessions in silence this week while surrounded by television cameras and murmuring reporters?

This was almost certainly the end of Griffin’s time in Washington. And if you had told me in early 2013 the end would come within three years, I almost certainly would have looked at you like you had giant seltzer-spewing antennae protruding from your forehead. When Griffin was shredding defenses, starring in national ad campaigns, leading Washington to its first division title in more than a decade and selling more jerseys than any NFL player had ever sold in a single season, I felt certain he would retire as the most popular athlete in Washington sports history.

“I think that’s kind of what we all thought,” Kerrigan said.

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Instead, there was the 25-year-old, leaving his locker empty but for a Biblical message and a lengthy quote about leadership. What’s the phrase he once trademarked? Unbelievably believable?

People are optimistic about Cousins now, and justifiably so. But no matter whom you blame for Griffin’s downfall in Washington, don’t forget what he did in 2012. He finished with the best passer rating ever recorded by an NFL rookie quarterback and the best passer rating of any Redskins quarterback since at least 1960. Washington’s offense that season scored the fourth-most points in franchise history; the top two teams on that list played in the Super Bowl. That season-closing seven-game winning streak was Washington’s longest in 16 years.

And Griffin’s debut in New Orleans felt like a hallucination: He had a perfect passer rating in the first half against the Saints and led the Redskins to 40 points. The best quarterback in a generation had arrived. Everything was going to be better.

“It was fireworks,” said Redskins cornerback Will Blackmon, who was out of the league that season and watched Griffin from home.

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“He took the league by storm,” Kedric Golston said. “I mean, it was phenomenal. It was electric – electric just because the stuff he was doing on the field was electric.”

“The way he played, the way he kind of carried the team at times, it was something special,” Kerrigan said.

“Legendary,” tight end Niles Paul said. “I’ll never forget that 2012 year.”

More than that, Griffin injected giddiness straight into the bloodstream of Washington sports fans. As divisive as this season has been – with Cousins believers and doubters at each other’s throats – 2012 felt unifying and pure. The season-closing win over the Cowboys may have been the most euphoric moment in the history of FedEx Field. And with Bryce Harper and Alex Ovechkin also in town, it felt like the dawn of a golden era of Washington sports.

“It’s tough to unite this city around anything,” President Barack Obama said then. “Believe me, I know. But RGIII makes it look easy.”

It would have been lunacy to suggest that Griffin would start just 20 more games here. That his jerseys would be in the clearance section of local sports stores. That he would become a lightning rod, with some fans wishing him good riddance while rallying behind Cousins. That Randy Wittman’s tenure as Wizards coach would almost certainly last longer than Griffin’s tenure in Washington.

“Whether you’re the second pick in the draft and a Heisman trophy winner, a rookie free agent or a third-round guy, this league will humble you,” Golston said. “And the difference with Robert was, he had every eye, every camera on him when he was going through that process. And that’s tough, because you get in a situation where you can do no right no matter what you do.”

Griffin wasn’t exactly invisible this year. You’ve seen the images of him slapping hands before games or staying late after practice. Game broadcasts often sought him out on the sideline. One time I saw him running hills at Redskins Park just a few feet from the room where Cousins was addressing the media. But for those of us expecting a season’s worth of RGIII-related headlines, he silenced us by staying silent.

“The situation he was in this year, he handled it perfectly, because it was a non-story, you know what I mean?” Golston said. “He didn’t distract in any kind of way. He did everything they asked him to do at practice, was a great teammate in the locker room, and so that’s what he could do. He did all he could do this year.”

“That’s got to be an incredibly tough situation,” Kerrigan said. “He’s been through a lot in such a short four-year window. I mean, you’ve got to commend him, because despite all that’s gone on, this year he still came to work every day and tried to get better, stayed after practice trying to get better. I think it takes a lot of guts to do that in the face of what he’s been through.”

You can probably find some fault in everyone involved in this saga, from Dan Snyder and Bruce Allen to Mike Shanahan to Griffin’s advisers and sponsors to the young quarterback himself. What would have happened if he hadn’t gotten hurt? If he had been more patient during his rehab? If the older and more experienced men in charge had tamped down the hype?

The result still exudes sadness and disappointment, as unbelievably believable as the joy that preceded it.