On Thanksgiving Day 2012, Washington's RG III 'was on a Michael Vick level'

The hometown kid returned and "put on a show," leading to an odd occurrence during a Washington-Dallas Cowboys game in Texas: Fans chanting for an opposing player. But this was quarterback Robert Griffin III and this was the fan base he had thrilled only a year earlier at nearby Baylor.

In 2011 Griffin won the Heisman Trophy. In 2012 he captivated the NFL, especially on Thanksgiving. Griffin and the offense were electric in a 38-31 win over the Cowboys that exemplified why teams feared Washington. He threw for 304 yards and four touchdowns, and led a 28-point second-quarter outburst.

"Everyone dreams of being drafted to a team in your home state," Griffin, now a backup with the Baltimore Ravens, told ESPN. "I didn't get that opportunity, but when you go back you want to put on a show."

"We thought he would be the guy to usher in that athletic quarterback and take it to another level, because he could throw. Unfortunately it didn't turn out that way, but I remember the hype after that [Thanksgiving] game was crazy." Marcus Spears, ESPN NFL analyst, playing against RG III in 2012.

Griffin had shown in previous games how well he could run; this time he torched a defense with his arm on national TV. Griffin had become everything Washington and its fan base hoped for when it traded three first-round picks and a second-rounder to the then-St. Louis Rams to move up and select him with the No. 2 overall pick in 2012.

"I just thought the guy was on a Michael Vick level at that moment," said former Washington receiver Santana Moss, who caught one of those Thanksgiving touchdown passes.

It also happened to be the only time Washington has defeated Dallas on Thanksgiving. The franchise is 1-8 vs. Dallas on the holiday heading into Thursday's game (4:30 p.m. ET, Fox) between the two 3-7 teams. Washington also entered with a sub .500 record in 2012; it was 4-6 and on a one-game winning streak.

Griffin had shown some of what he could do leading into the game. After nine games he had eight TD passes and three interceptions with two 300-yard passing games. He had also rushed for 529 yards and six touchdowns with most of that production coming on designed runs. But he sometimes scrambled for big plays, including a 76-yard scoring dash to clinch a win against the Minnesota Vikings.

Then on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, Griffin threw four touchdown passes against the Philadelphia Eagles and rushed 12 times for 84 yards. Four days later he beat Dallas. The Cowboys were 5-5, but had the NFL's seventh-rated defense in total yards and sixth in passing yards.

"That game encapsulated everything that [offensive coordinator] Kyle [Shanahan] thought the offense could and should be," said former Washington tight end Logan Paulsen. "The Philadelphia game the week before was a prelude to that. Dallas' defense was the class of the division. To execute at a high level against Dallas, everyone was super excited like, 'Holy cow.' It was a building block for the rest of the season."

'He could do no wrong'

As then-Washington coach Mike Shanahan said, the league was still uncertain how to defend the zone read even though Cam Newton had run it the previous season in Carolina, Washington's offense used it more and incorporated it heavily into the passing game under Kyle Shanahan. It exploded against Dallas with Griffin completing 6 of 9 for 211 yards and three touchdowns when using play-action.

Dallas defenders often were caught out of position because of the zone-read fakes. The safeties had to account for Griffin in the run game, an unusual assignment compared to almost every other quarterback. On the first touchdown, a 68-yard pass to Aldrick Robinson, the safeties froze to see if Griffin would hand the ball off, keep it or throw. He threw; Robinson was long past them.

"That happened all year," Mike Shanahan said. "That's why we had that type of year. People weren't ready for it and Robert could execute it well."

Following an Alfred Morris touchdown run, Griffin connected with receiver Pierre Garcon after more play-action, for 59 yards. It wasn't Griffin's best pass -- Garcon had to reach back to grab the ball -- but everything was going Washington's way.

"The pass to Pierre was the one I was dumbfounded," Griffin said. "First, how did he catch it? He was running full speed across the middle and the throw was behind him. He throws his body weight back and regains his balance in one step and runs for a touchdown."

Said Moss: "Plays like that happened the entire year for Robert. It was one of those years. He could do no wrong. ... Robert was young and raw. He wasn't a pocket passer, but he was so raw as a player it was like, 'Just make a play.' And that's what he was doing."

Griffin's third TD was for six-yard pass to Moss. On a rollout to his right he dropped a perfect throw in Moss' side pocket against tight coverage as Moss tip-toed to stay in bounds. The fourth touchdown pass came in the fourth quarter off, yes, play-action. The linebacker eyed Griffin and Morris, letting tight end Niles Paul sneak past for a wide-open catch.

What could have been

Washington won its next five games and the NFC East. Griffin missed one game after tearing the lateral collateral ligament in his right knee against Baltimore, but returned for the final two games of the season and a home playoff matchup against Seattle. After taking a 14-0 lead in that game, Washington appeared headed for greater things. Instead, disaster followed.

Griffin tore the ACL in his right knee, the team lost, and his path in Washington forever changed.

Paulsen said a common feeling in the locker room a day later was this: "We should have been in the Super Bowl. No one could beat us when the offense [was clicking]."

He added: "For all that happened after, it's kind of sad and depressing to think back on that. I see that game as a missed opportunity for the city, the team, Robert, a ton of individuals on that roster."

The team needed Griffin to become what he did that season: a star. Morris, a rookie, rushed for 1,613 yards. Griffin finished with 3,200 yards passing (20 TDs), 815 rushing (seven TDs) and was named the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. The zone read became a popular play.

"It was fairly new when they were doing it, but it was brand new doing it with a guy that has 4.3 track speed," said Marcus Spears, then a Dallas defensive linemen and now an ESPN NFL analyst. "You see the quarterbacks doing it now. Arguably if it hadn't been for the injury [against Baltimore], he could still be going. That took a big [piece] out of his game. It was so hard to defend against him."

The Washington defense in 2012 wasn't good statistically -- 28th in yards per game; 22nd in points -- but it was tied for fifth with 31 forced turnovers.

"It was the best coaching job of any team I've been a part of," Mike Shanahan said. "We didn't have a lot of depth on defense. ... We played awfully hard and the offense did an unbelievable job putting in that zone read and all the passing plays off it."

Near the end of the game, FOX play-by-play announcer Joe Buck told viewers: "This division is going to be bothered by RG3 for who knows how long."

Buck wasn't alone in that thinking. Spears said he remembers thinking after the game, "We're going to have to put up with this son of a gun -- I didn't say gun though -- for however many years I've got left in this division. We thought he was the next wave. We thought he would be the guy to usher in that athletic quarterback and take it to another level, because he could throw. Unfortunately it didn't turn out that way, but I remember the hype after that [Thanksgiving] game was crazy."

A memory to cherish

To hear some fans in Dallas chant, "RG3!" at various points during the game was jarring -- even if Griffin had put Baylor on the college football map.

"To me, that was them trying to show me they still loved me," Griffin said. "They know my story and appreciated my journey. ... It was a lot of fun. Teammates razzed me about it. We're in Jerry's World and they're chanting the name of a player who plays for their arch-rival. It was cool. I can't put it into words how amazing it felt."

The postscript to the season and what went wrong with Griffin always depends on who you talk to: Coaches say he didn't want to run the zone read; Griffin says he felt they didn't want to run it because of his knee injury. But for one day in 2012, all was good in Washington's world. Griffin savors the memory. Now 30, he uses that game and season as evidence of what he can accomplish.

"It was awesome," he said. "It was a great time in my career, a great opportunity, great moment and I enjoyed it with my teammates. I see that game pop up on Twitter all the time; it's not like anyone will let me forget it and I don't want to forget. That's the type of player I knew I could be, and I can be that way in the future."