WASHINGTON (AP) — Robert Griffin III was fashionably casual as he dropped off his large black backpack and strode to front of the interview room. His dreadlocks grazed the top of his black collared shirt. His jeans gave way to black tennis shoes with white soles. In his hand, of course, was a bottle of Gatorade. The blue flavor.
He put his hands firmly on the podium and confidently answered every question, making eye contact with the reporters and giving himself and teammates positive reviews. When he was done, he thanked the writers and called them “awesome.” Out in the hallway, he dropped his voice a notch — like a comic doing an impersonation — and noted that he got through the session without uttering any “bulletin board material.”
A few dozen yards away, Andrew Luck was just plain casual, dressed in a buttoned-down checkered shirt that looked like something a just-arrived college freshman would have stashed in the foot locker of his dorm room closet. His hair was still wet. He mostly kept his hands in his pockets and shrugged a lot. Not an “I don’t know” type of shrug, but one that said: “I suppose so.” He didn’t bring a sponsor’s product with him.
He was critical of his performance, saying he wasn’t happy, even though his statistics were comparable to Griffin’s. His answers weren’t as polished as his counterpart’s. It’s not that he came across poorly — he was knowledgeable and acquitted himself just fine in his news conference after the preseason game between the Indianapolis Colts and Washington Redskins — it’s just that he suffers from comparison in the early stages of the charisma competition between the top two selections in this year’s NFL draft.
In many ways, they are ying and yang. No. 1 pick Luck came to the Colts well-versed in the pro-style offense, comfortable when taking a snap from center and throwing from the pocket because that’s how he played at Stanford. No. 2 Griffin feels more at home in the shotgun and can run an option just as easily as throw a 30-yard pass downfield, a multitalented package that won him the Heisman Trophy at Baylor but needs some honing in the NFL.
Yet, in the marketing sweepstakes — which are nearly as relevant as won-loss records in the modern sports world — Griffin is already the rookie of the year. He’s got the catchy nickname (“RG3″). He’s got the commercials that seem to air all the time. (Teammate Santana Moss said there were two back-to-back when the team flipped on the television on a short bus ride following a preseason game.) He famously wore Superman socks to the Heisman ceremony and has other superhero figurines in his locker. As a showman and as a leader, he’s a natural.
“He walks into the room, he’s got the great smile,” said former quarterback and CBS analyst Boomer Esiason. “He carries himself. I think every young athlete sees a kid with the dreadlocks, speaking well, doing everything that I think excites a young kid.
“Andrew Luck is more the low-key type. He’s very measured. He’s quiet. RG3 is high-fiving everybody. (Luck) comes in, shakes your hand. Quiet, methodical personality.”
No matter the personality, it takes a lot of moxie for a player to market himself heavily before he’s taken even one snap in the big league. And, conversely, it takes some restraint not to make the most of every endorsement opportunity, no matter how unproven the player is. It’s not as if Luck didn’t get offers, but several factors led him to accept only a few, even as Griffin dived into the deep end.
“I really didn’t have much time,” Luck said. “And I wanted to make sure I had time to handle the stuff that mattered, whether it was moving into an apartment, finishing school or learning the playbook. There was so much going on, I figured the less time I spent promoting myself or doing ads, the better for me. I figured I’d wait and hopefully, at some point, a big fish will come along.”
Griffin had less of a schedule crunch, so much so that he says the time-consuming work of filming commercials and making promotional appearances hasn’t interfered with his football studies.
“You do it when you’re supposed to do it,” Griffin said. “The guys realize that. When you have your time in the offseason, that’s when you do the commercials and endorsements and things of that nature. Andrew had to go back to school at Stanford, so a lot of his time was cut out. I was free, for the most part — graduated already, was in grad school. I made sure I took care of that responsibility and then I made sure I took care of my responsibility with the playbook and getting to know these guys.
“They laugh about it because Santana tells me he’s laying in bed at night and his TV says, ‘Robert Griffin III, the official restaurant of training athletes everywhere’ for Subway. He’s waking up like: ‘Is RG in my house?’ It’s a fun thing that guys make fun of me for a little bit, but I think it all draws us closer together.”
But it also could lead to resentment if Griffin doesn’t perform on the field. The 30-second spots for foot-long subs won’t come across the same way to teammates — or fans — if the rookie is chunking interceptions by the boatload come December.
“When you get all that, you have to go out and perform, perform at a high level,” said Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino, also a CBS analyst. “I think he’s the kind of kid smart enough to understand that. He’s going to work hard at his craft.”
Luck, for his part, doesn’t begrudge Griffin one bit.
“To each his own,” Luck said. “I don’t necessarily think my way is the right way. It’s what’s best for each person. It’s fun to see Robert capitalizing on his situation.”
If this story seems familiar, just think back to 1998, when No. 2 overall pick Ryan Leaf was seen as having more poster-boy potential than straight-laced No. 1 choice Peyton Manning. Leaf was even quoted as saying: “That’s why I’m more marketable than the Golden Boy on the endorsement end of things; I’ve got personality.”
That sure didn’t work out. Leaf is considered the greatest bust in NFL draft history. Manning is still playing and headed for the Hall of Fame in a career that’s been extremely marketable. There have been times in Manning’s career when his commercials seemed as ubiquitous as Griffin’s are now.
Ironically, it is now Luck who is following in Manning’s footsteps with the Colts. However, to be fair, it’s important to note that Griffin’s self-assuredness in his early days as a pro doesn’t appear remotely comparable to Leaf’s renowned cockiness.
Still, Griffin and Luck will always be compared and contrasted, just like Manning and Leaf. They will be fascinating to watch, on and off the field.
For now, it’s all fun. Neither player has thrown a pass in a game that counts, so it’s time to sit back and be enthralled by Luck’s potential and entertained by Griffin’s showbiz appeal. Griffin reached new heights — literally — on the night before the RG3 vs. Luck preseason game, when his image was projected on the 74-foot-high marble First Amendment tablet at the Newseum, the news museum that occupies high-esteem real estate on Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House.
And, on a recent afternoon when talking to reporters at Redskins Park, Griffin had perhaps the best walk-off answer of the preseason.
Asked about fellow rookie Alfred Morris’ strong performance, Griffin replied: “Like I told him at the game, I grew up with Captain Planet. So we said, ‘We got our rookie powers uniting.’ So he’s doing a good job.”
There was silence. Mouths are agape. Then came the laughter.
“Leave ’em speechless,” Griffin said as he walked off the podium. “Let that marinate.”
One can only imagine what’s to come.