RGIII’s playoff injury and Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan’s bad call to let him keep playing

Jena McGregor
Columnist January 7, 2013

Everyone’s a Monday morning quarterback today.

After Robert Griffin III re-injured his knee in the first round of the playoffs Sunday afternoon, coach Mike Shanahan’s decision to keep him in the game until he collapsed in one of those cover-your-eyes moments of joint distortion, is getting plenty of scrutiny. A poll on the Post’s site has fans voting resoundingly against Shanahan. Tom Boswell writes that “if ever a veteran coach needed to accept responsibility for the reins of a player, it was Shanahan over Griffin in this game.” ESPN’s Dan Graziano opines that “he should have come out of the game. It's really that simple, and it's not hindsight.”

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section. View Archive

He’s right that this is one case where what looks so clear on Monday morning looked pretty obvious on Sunday, too. Anyone watching the game saw a hobbled RGIII whose on-field production fell precipitously following a promising 14-0 start and a re-injury to his knee late in the first quarter. So why did Shanahan leave him in?

We all know the answer: The sky-high stakes of a playoff game. An NFL culture that celebrates hard hits, blood and guts, and leaving it all out on the field, And, as Shanahan characterizes his decision-making process, it “was enough for me” when Griffin asked him to “give me the chance to win this football game because I guarantee I'm not injured."

Is there any other field in which leaders base their decisions on a 22-year-old rookie, one who may have great talent and great leadership, but who nonetheless is consumed by the emotion and potential heroism of the moment? Do CEOs make calls on strategy based solely on a young employee’s confidence? Do leaders promote rising stars to bigger jobs with complex new responsibilities just because they say they’re ready for it? Sometimes, sure. But it doesn’t often end well.

Whether or not Shanahan made the right call seems pretty simple: He didn’t. It’s the coach’s job—particularly a veteran one’s—to apply judgment to a situation, tap the collective wisdom of his staff and paid consultants, and make an experience-driven decision that best benefits the team over the long haul, rather than turning to a rookie’s big hearted, step-up-and-be-a-man response.

What’s harder to analyze on Monday morning is how to keep it from happening again. Could NFL coaches’ contracts be rewritten to better incentivize player longevity? Should there be mandatory checks by doctors before a player is allowed to go back into a game? How can coaches’ rewards for winning games in the short-term be balanced by rewards for the long-term health and future prospects of his team?

Post-game hindsight is one thing. But as long as emotional gut decisions that rely on the input of ambitious 22-year-olds are part of the process, we’re likely to see it happen again.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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