When listening to the soft-spoken and unpretentious Cornelius Griffin, one may assume that sacking the quarterback isn't that big of a deal to the Redskins' star defensive tackle.
Griffin goes to great lengths to avoid praising himself, while bobbing and weaving to dodge compliments from others. He instead stresses the importance of the Redskins as a team doing well, specifying that the defense needs to handcuff opponents, prevent them from scoring in the red zone, or simply shut them out.
After all, he says nonchalantly, making three or four sacks means nothing if you lose: "The thing is getting the W."
Heading into this Sunday's game against the New York Giants, Griffin's former team, the Redskins' defense is ranked fourth in the NFL. Griffin has logged 31 tackles (23 solo) and a team-high three sacks this season.
Griffin's modesty aside, his ability to torment quarterbacks, running backs and offensive linemen is instrumental to the Redskins' fortunes. Take the pivotal sack he made in the season-opener against the Bears at FedExField.
For nearly four quarters, Bears center Olin Kreutz and guard Terrence Metcalf had neutralized the 6-3, 300-pound Griffin, who finished tied with cornerback Shawn Springs last season for most Redskins sacks with six. It wasn't only Griffin who had been held at bay, for the entire defensive line, occasionally in a three-man front, had failed to put much pressure on rookie quarterback Kyle Orton.
But Griffin was due.
With Chicago trailing 9-7 and facing a 2nd-and-10 at its own 20, Orton dropped back to pass. Griffin bull-rushed 6-3, 318-pound Metcalf, used his quickness and power to go around him, and stripped the ball from Orton and recovered it to seal the win. He exited the field holding the ball high, as his teammates rushed over to congratulate him.
"We knew we had to go out there and finish it, and not give them a chance for a field goal," Griffin, surrounded by a throng of reporters, said after the game. "We were playing to win."
Griffin's clutch sack seemed like déjà vu. In the Redskins' 13-10 win over Chicago last season, he played about as well as any NFL defensive tackle can play, making 10 tackles and two sacks, both of them on the Bears' final possession. He also posted huge games in a 20-14 loss against the Giants, tallying a career-high 12 tackles, and in a 17-10 win over Detroit with two sacks and seven tackles.
Griffin, now in his sixth year out of Alabama, produced his finest season in 2004 with a career-high 96 tackles. The heart and soul of a defense that finished No. 3 in the league, he was named The Quarterback Club Redskins Player of the Year and a fourth alternate to the Pro Bowl, a crime of a selection given his high quality of play.
The omission may have been partly because he quietly goes about his business and doesn't draw the attention of more flashy players. If he had made the Pro Bowl roster, he would have been the first Redskin defensive tackle to play in the all-star game since Dave Butz in 1983.
"What Cornelius has brought here has just been phenomenal," head coach Joe Gibbs said this week. "I don't think you can say enough good things about him. I'm always hesitant to compare people, but he's in a class with any other defensive tackle I've ever coached. He's a pretty remarkable guy."
"I don't know another defensive tackle in the NFL I'd rather have right now than Cornelius," assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams said late last season. "Cornelius has bought into how hard you have to work. When you get paid, you're supposed to bring with that the responsibility of setting good examples. He has set a good example."
Griffin, signed before the 2004 season as an unrestricted free agent after four years with the Giants, is again being counted on to be a leader, as the defense sets out to put forth another stellar season.
Griffin has been slowed by a hip injury this week, but he is listed as probable on the team's injury report and is expected to play Sunday against the Giants.
"We can't let [offenses] drive down the field on us, and if they get the ball in good field position, we can't just let them in the door," he said. "So we've got to turn them away more, take the ball away more, be more of a dominant defense. Set up more points for the offense. We just have to be ready to play football, Redskins football."