Column: Shanahan not at fault for RG3

Rob Woodfork,

WASHINGTON – In a move that appears to be the new standard for postseason appearances in the nation’s capital, the Washington Redskins saw the team’s playoff run end amid controversy.

In case you’ve been under a rock for the last two days, star rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III had his already ailing right-knee give out on him not once, but twice in the ‘Skins’ 24-14 playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks – the latter injury coming late in the game at a time where many felt he shouldn’t even be in the game.

While Redskins Nation (and most of America) awaits word on the final prognosis, the predictable finger-pointing is well under way. As is customary in today’s reactionary society, when things go bad somebody has to bear the blame. Most place it right on coach Mike Shanahan’s door.

I’m not one of them.

First, let me be clear: If I were the coach of the Redskins (and fans everywhere should thank whatever higher being they hold dear I’m not), I would have benched RG3 at halftime. After the first re-injury of his right knee in the first quarter, I would have turned the keys over to the capable hands of Kirk Cousins, with the option to go back to Griffin if Kirk Cousins couldn’t get it done against a solid Seattle defense.

But I’m not the coach of the Redskins. Mike Shanahan is.

I don’t have a personal and/or working relationship with RG3. Shanahan does. That relationship – right or wrong – led him to give his star quarterback some benefit of the doubt regarding his own health. That’s why I don’t fault Shanahan for his actions (or in this case, inaction).

Plenty have weighed in on this matter, but one opinion resonated with me. ESPN’s Eric Mangini explained during a segment on the network that handling injuries in the NFL is “interactive between the coach and player” – meaning, it’s not uncommon for there to be a back-and-forth between (in this case) – Griffin and Shanahan, with the consensus being the prevailing factor instead of just a unilateral decision by the head coach.

Right or wrong, that’s what happened in Landover. RG3 told Shanahan he’s “hurt but not injured,” said and did all the things Shanahan was looking for, and actually threw his second touchdown after the initial re-injury. At that point, there was no reason to think he couldn’t gut out another solid performance like he did in Philly and the previous week against Dallas.

Now, personally, I thought Griffin’s poor second quarter showing prompted a benching. He was uncharacteristically inaccurate and obviously hobbled. But Shanahan figured RG3 gave him the best chance to win (something that’s hard to debate given Cousins missed practice that week with the flu, and Rex Grossman is…well, Rex Grossman).

Shanahan bet his stud QB could will himself to make a play or two to win the game, a bet that had some precedent given he did the same to help set up the game-tying TD late in the game against Baltimore – no matter how ill-advised.

Shanahan trusted his player’s judgment regarding his own health. Part of the job of a professional athlete is to know his body better than anyone else. Griffin has suffered multiple injuries to that knee, and his coach assumed he would know his limits. Just because he was wrong to give that much latitude to a 22-year-old rookie doesn’t mean his motives were nefarious – or that RG3 was reckless.

Lest we forget, this is the culture of football, especially at the pro level. It’s long been said, if you can walk, you can play. The NFL has long deified tough guys. Ronnie Lott infamously chopped off the tip of his pinky finger so he wouldn’t miss a game. Emmitt Smith played the final game of the 1993 regular season with a separated shoulder to key a Dallas run to the playoffs (and ultimately, the Super Bowl).

Oh, and remember Brett Favre? Not only does he get eternal praise for playing a league-record 297 consecutive games despite a seemingly endless list of injuries, but he suffered the exact same knee injury Griffin suffered (sprained LCL) in a 2002 game (ironically) against the Redskins, and never missed a game.

Strangely, I don’t recall anyone calling for his coach’s job.

We can’t prop these guys up as heroes for playing hurt and then dismiss them as foolhardy when that “heroic” effort falls short. Had RG3 finished that game with the Redskins victorious, we’d laud him as the toughest, gutsiest player we’d seen here since Doug Williams shook off an ugly knee injury to set a Super Bowl record four second quarter TDs to lead a rout of the Broncos in 1988. RG3 would be added to the list of legendary playoff performers to get it done despite injuries that would sideline “lesser” men.

So let’s be real about this. We hate the outcome, not the process. The Redskins best player got hurt in vain because they lost. Two years ago in Chicago, Jay Cutler left the NFC Championship game because of a knee injury and the Bears’ hopes to beat the eventual-champion Packers went with him to the bench. Cutler was later eviscerated for not “gutting it out” and finishing that all-important game. San Diego let Philip Rivers play on a torn ACL in the Chargers’ AFC title game loss to New England in 2008. If any one of those games ended differently, the narrative would be too.

Again: I’m not saying RG3 was right to play as long as he did. In fact, I’m on record stating he shouldn’t have.

But this is the business Griffin has chosen, and he knew the risks going back on the field. If you know how Shanahan’s playing career ended, then you know he’s more aware of the dangers of playing football than most.

Sometimes bad things happen through the fault of no one particular person. Let’s just hope the consequences aren’t as dire as we all fear.

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