Stephen Strasburg and Robert Griffin III: The inevitable and cloying comparison

January 6, 2013

Happier times. (Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Someday, maybe, for the sake of Washington’s psyche and will to consume sporting events, a local team’s playoff run will end without a disastrous collapse, a funereal home stadium and, most cutting of all, a franchise player on the sideline with a scrutinized ligament, reduced from a generational talent catalyzing a giddily fun regular season to a debate from Sports Radio Hell waiting to happen.

The comparison is as cloying as it is inevitable. The Redskins decided to play Robert Griffin III even though he was injured, clearly diminished. The Nationals decided to shut down Stephen Strasburg even though he was healthy, possibly fine. We do not know how badly Griffin is hurt, but the grotesque bend of his leg in the fourth quarter is enough to presume it is not good. We do not know what will come of Strasburg’s right elbow, but he will arrive at spring training – just six weeks away! – with a clean bill of health. One franchise pillar is questionable. One is unharmed.

Is the comparison relevant? In some ways, it is not. The circumstances were too different. Griffin came into today’s loss with at least a first-degree strain of his LCL, and he visibly hurt it worse on that first quarter run when he tumbled out of bounds. Strasburg had a prescribed innings limit two years after major surgery, and despite two shaky starts in late summer there existed a clear possibility he COULD HAVE kept pitching and not done any long-term damage.

Some will say the result from Mike Shanahan’s decision to not take Griffin out of the game vindicates Mike Rizzo’s call to shelve Strasburg for September and the playoffs. It is a fair thought, but probably too simple. Your view probably depends on how you felt about the Strasburg shut down at the time.

Where there is a fair comparison is this: Rizzo did the maximum – some say too much – to protect his player and prized asset, and Shanahan did the minimum – some say not enough – to protect his. And the player who kept playing got hurt.

Performance is a consideration, too. Strasburg began to falter in those starts against the Marlins, but few would have said, without further evidence, that John Lannan gave the Nationals a better chance to win every five days than Strasburg. Griffin was dragging his right leg like it was filled with Iridium. Kirk Cousins and his two healthy knees may have simply been the better player.

The choices say more about the mores of the respective sports than the men making them. Football is brutal and vicious, and players are pumped with all manner of painkillers and drugs to get them through Sunday. You wonder if ANY coach would have pulled Griffin if he thought Griffin gave them the best chance to win. Baseball keeps counts on the number of pitches thrown. Baseball players are tough, but they can also walk when they are 60.

Both Griffin and Strasburg faced their dilemma with the same rub-dirt-on-it ethos. Shanahan said he based his decision on what Griffin told him – that he was “hurt” and not “injured.” Strasburg raged at the decision to shut him down and repeatedly told Nationals brass he felt fine. Players always want to play.

When Rizzo made his decision, he took all competitive considerations out of play and made what he believed was a purely medical decision. When Shanahan made his decision, he placed victory above all and, if Dr. James Andrews’s quotes to USA Today tell the full story, may have willfully ignored medical opinion.

Shanahan will probably be buried in some corners for playing Griffin, just as Rizzo was blasted for sitting Strasburg. There are, again, enough differences that you could do both without being a hypocrite. Maybe Rizzo will gain some sympathy. Maybe not. It’s all noise for now, and until the next time horsehide hisses in Viera or toe meets leather in Ashburn, it will all just feel so damn sad.

Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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Adam Kilgore · January 6, 2013