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ASHBURN, Va. — What's the biggest thing that Robert Griffin III has to prove to himself?

"Nothing," the Washington Redskins quarterback, aka RG3, declared this week.

Griffin, if not dismissive, seemed to be a bit defensive.

I can feel him.

It's tough being the face of a franchise that bet the farm in order to draft you, especially when people like former Washington quarterback Joe Theismann suggest that your backup, Kirk Cousins, should really be the starter.

Tough when you're learning a new playbook under first-year head coach Jay Gruden, who might be the anti-Mike Shanahan, and your first-team offense doesn't score a touchdown the entire preseason while Griffin himself appeared out of sorts in the pocket.

Tough when your decision-making in those heat-of-the-action, slide-or-not moments, is questioned.

But people want to nitpick.

"We don't have to prove anything to anybody else out there," Griffin said. "All we have to do is go out there, be the team that we know we can be."

He shrugged. Then he went on talking about what he and his teammates have to prove. Go figure.

"I guess if you want to say it, we have a lot to prove to ourselves within this building," Griffin said. "It's about all of us going out there and being successful. Like I've said many times this whole offseason, they go as I go. If I play well, we play well. If I don't play well, we don't play well."

Athletic arrogance? Check.

Griffin sounds like a man who is tired of talking about the elephant in the room — whether he will ever rebound to become the burgeoning star that he was as a rookie. But he also understands that scrutiny comes with the territory. He hasn't always handled that well, evidenced by his recent smack talk on Twitter and his tendency to sometimes come off as a bit self-absorbed.

But the best thing about now is that he gets to, well, prove himself on the field, starting with Sunday's regular-season opener at the Houston Texans. He can make amends for a horrendous dress rehearsal in his last outing, during the third week of the preseason at Baltimore, when a 27.1 passer rating was accented by an interception, three sacks and a fumbled snap.

After a dismal sophomore NFL season — when he probably came back too quickly from reconstructive knee surgery, feuded with Shanahan and was benched for the final three games — maybe he will turn the page at Houston.

"We've all been through ups and downs in our careers," ninth-year guard Chris Chester told USA TODAY Sports. "I remember when they were tough on Joe Flacco, and now he's one of the highest-paid quarterbacks.

"When I get an opportunity, I try to let Robert know that he should not get too caught up in all the media and the outside things that can tear you down."

It's way too early to write off Griffin, whose talent should show better with experience. But it's striking how the narrative has changed with him over the past year.

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A year ago, the buzz was about his triumphant return from the injury. That Griffin played along with the hype with his "All in for Week 1" commercial and T-shirt fueled questions about how his marketing objectives meshed with the nuts-and-bolts of football.

There is no marketing campaign this time, but he enters the season as one of the NFL's biggest question marks because of those nuts and bolts.

In Gruden's offense, there's the demand that he become primarily a pocket passer — which may preserve him over the long run — while complementing that with his mobility. Beyond that, though, there has been much debate about how he handles himself. I've wondered, like others close to the team, if he needs to re-establish himself as a locker room leader.

A sign to that end could come Friday, when team captains are announced.

On Wednesday, veteran cornerback DeAngelo Hall identified the player that he most expected would be named a captain — and it wasn't RG3.

"I guarantee you Trent will be one of them," Hall told USA TODAY Sports, referencing Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams. "It's hard to beat out a guy like Trent, one of the best in the league at what he does.

"That's not a knock on RG."

And Hall insists that Griffin is respected in the locker room.

"You can go out and throw for 500 yards," Hall said, "but if you're a (expletive), you're a (expletive)."

Griffin believes that his tumultuous 2013 season re-established him as a leader.

"I did not allow that to eat up the locker room, contrary to popular belief," Griffin told USA TODAY Sports during training camp.

"What guys have told me is that they respect me for what happened last year, because of the way I handled it. We're stronger today because of what happened last year. And God always has a plan."

Gruden has defended Griffin's shaky preseason, maintaining that his quarterback is further along in the offense than it appears. Yet the coach has also intimated that Griffin doesn't handle criticism well.

"I know where Jay is coming from when he says those kinds of things," Griffin said. "I've learned that not everyone is going to like you. That's part of the business, the nature of human beings.

"There are people in this room that don't like me," he added, raising eyebrows among reporters at his press conference. "You've just got to move on from that kind of stuff. ... Trust me, I'm not worried about anybody liking me."

Minutes after Griffin finished at the podium Wednesday, Texans defensive end J.J. Watt held a conference call with Washington reporters. Earlier this week, Watt signed a six-year, $100 million contract extension.

Asked what the contract did for his psyche and whether he is relieved to have the deal done before the season starts, Watt mentioned that it is an example of the rewards that can come with hard work.

Then Watt added: "I want to prove that I'm worthy of it."

He wants to prove it, and isn't too shy to say it.

What a contrast.

***

Follow NFL columnist Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell

VIDEO: NFC East preview

USA TODAY Sports' Lorenzo Reyes breaks down the NFC East heading into the season.

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