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 in his debut, and Washington held on for 40-32 victory over the Saints on Sunday.
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New Orleans hoped to open the season with a defiant show of force in the wake of the bounty scandal that overshadowed its offseason. They also got a boost on 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 unready to play after offseason knee surgery, received a rousing ovation when he walked onto the field to lead the Saints’ tradition pregame “Who-dat” chant.
Instead of riding that emotional high, the Saints spent nearly the entire game trying to keep up with a Redskins offense powered by youth. Griffin completed his first eight passes, including an 88-yard touchdown to Pierre Garcon, and finished 19 of 26 with no interceptions and a passer rating of 139.9. He also scrambled for 42 yards.
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.
The Saints never gave up, pulling to 40-32 on Darren Sproles’ 2-yard reception from Drew Brees. But when Washington required a first down to all but put the game away, Griffin delivered a 22-yard strike to 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 competed a single-season record 71.2 percent of his passes, but managed to hit on only 46 percent (24 of 52) against Washington.
Brees still finished with 339 yards and three touchdowns, including 33 yards to Lance Moore and 20 toss to Jimmy Graham. That might have been enough if not for Griffin, the former Baylor star selected second overall in the draft.
Griffin hardly could have started better. He completed all seven of his passes in the first quarter, the last to Garcon on a crossing route, with the receiver breaking away to give Washington a 10-7 lead. Griffin, a 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 his left to avoid the rush before rifling a pass all the way across the field to tight end Fred Davis for a 26-yard gain. That set up his TD pass to Robinson.
Griffin scrambled again before zipping a 27-yard pass to Santana Moss, setting up Billy Cundiff’s second field goal, making it 20-7.
However, the Saints weren’t exactly at full strength in the secondary. Usual starter Jabari Greer, coming back from sports hernia surgery in the preseason, was scratched. Cornerback Johnny Patrick left with an apparent right leg injury early in the second quarter. That left the Saints with three healthy cornerbacks, two of them extremely inexperienced.
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 going into halftime.
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.
Even though Smith and Vilma were back, the Saints were still without head coach Sean Payton and assistant head coach Joe Vitt, both suspended as a result of the NFL’s bounty probe. Head coaching duties were handled by offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, an experienced assistant, but new to the role he will serve for the first six games.
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