NEW ORLEANS — Robert Griffin III brought his Heisman Trophy swagger to New Orleans and made his NFL debut look like a Big Easy.
Showing a veteran’s composure by scrambling only when necessary, the dynamic Redskins rookie quarterback tormented New Orleans’ defense with 320 yards passing and two touchdowns, and Washington held on for 40-32 victory over the Saints on Sunday.
“I’ve won a high school state championship and a bowl game in college, but to play in the NFL, the pinnacle of it all, and win your first game against a Hall of Famer in Drew Brees, it’s at the top,” Griffin said while cradling the game ball he had just been given. “After the game, (Brees) told me he was proud of me. That’s big for him to say after he just lost the game.”
New Orleans hoped to open the season with a defiant show of force in the wake of the bounty scandal that overshadowed its offseason. The Saints also got a boost Friday when a three-member appeals panel reinstated defensive end Will Smith and linebacker Jon Vilma, who had been suspended for their roles in the Saints’ alleged pay-for-pain bounty program.
Smith started, while Vilma, deemed unfit to play after offseason knee surgery, received a rousing ovation when he walked onto the field to lead the Saints’ traditional pregame “Who-dat” chant.
Instead of riding that emotional high, the Saints spent much of the game trying to keep up with a Redskins offense powered by youth. Opening with several short, quick throws, Griffin completed his first eight passes. His seventh pass, released just before he was leveled on by blitzing safety Malcolm Jenkins, hit Pierre Garcon in stride over the middle for an 88-yard touchdown, tying the second-longest scoring pass by a quarterback making his NFL debut.
“It’s great for any quarterback to get a couple of easy passes at the beginning of a game so you can get into a rhythm,” Griffin said. “They were giving us those looks and I took advantage of them.”
Griffin finished 19 of 26 with no interceptions and a passer rating of 139.9. He also scrambled for 42 yards.
“Robert did an unbelievable job to play the way that he did in his first game in the National Football League,” said Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, marveling at “the poise that he played with and some of the throws that he made.”
Rookie Alfred Morris rushed for 96 yards and two touchdowns. Receiver Aldrick Robinson, a second-year pro making his NFL regular season debut, had a 5-yard touchdown catch among four receptions for 52 yards.
Brees quickly dismissed the idea that disruptions from the bounty probe, which resulted in a season-long suspension for coach and offensive mastermind Sean Payton, was to blame for New Orleans shaky start.
“Not at all. It’s the NFL. You better bring it every week,” Brees said. “We knew the type of team they were. We knew the type of defense they were. They just came in and played better than we did, made fewer mistakes than we did, made more plays than we did.”
In fact, Brees’ expectations for what remains of the season hardly seemed diminished.
“We lost the first game of year last year and finished 13-3,” Brees said. “So there’s no doubt that we can do it and we have the mentality and the guys to do it.”
The Saints pulled to 40-32 on Darren Sproles’ 2-yard reception. But when Washington required a first down to all but put the game away, Griffin delivered a 22-yard strike to tight end Logan Paulsen.
After that, the Redskins ran the clock down to 22 seconds before the Saints got the ball back. Brees desperation pass was intercepted by Reed Doughty near the Redskins’ goal line as time ran out.
That marked the second interception for Brees, who in 2011 completed a single-season record 71.2 percent of his passes, but managed to hit on only 46 percent (24 of 52) against Washington.
“That makes you angry,” Brees said, raising his eyebrows and shaking his head as he talked about completing less than half of his passes. “We’re better than that and we’re going to be better than that.”
Brees still finished with 339 yards and three touchdowns, including scoring passes of 33 yards to Lance Moore and 20 yards to Jimmy Graham. That might have been enough if not for Griffin, the former Baylor star selected second overall in the draft.
The Texas native, whose family is from New Orleans, had been to Saints games in the dome before and seemed unfazed by the noise.
In the second quarter, he danced out of the pocket to avoid pass rushers before rifling a pass across the field to tight end Fred Davis for a 26-yard gain. He punctuated another scramble with a 27-yard pass to Santana Moss, setting up Billy Cundiff’s second field goal, which made it 20-7.
Griffin finished the first half with a perfect 158.3 passer rating, the first time a rookie had done so with 10 or more attempts.
Still, the Saints got back within one touchdown before halftime.
Marques Colston fumbled a reception inside the Redskins 5 and the ball squirted out of the end zone for a touchback. But Martez Wilson blocked Sav Rocca’s punt and Courtney Roby scooped up the ball for a touchdown to make it 20-14.
Washington responded, aided by a pass interference call against safety Roman Harper on a long pass into the end zone. The Saints vigorously disputed the call with the replacement officials, but to no avail.
Morris scored easily from the 1.
The Saints might not have been pleased with the officials, but it was mostly their own mistakes that cost them — penalized 12 times for 107 yards.
“Today the difference was penalties,” said Saints interim coach Aaron Kromer. “It was third-and-long way too many times.”