For years D.C. had the vainest of owners, but he was balanced by Bobby Beathard and Joe Gibbs, two deft managers of ego — both theirs and others. They knew their NFL worth, but set that self-regard aside. Instead, they healed, fed or corralled the egos of others, from Dexter Manley to Joe Theismann and John Riggins.
The contrast to the current team is total. Witness this week’s clusterbacle. In the latest twist of the knife, Coach Mike Shanahan says that Robert Griffin III, whom he’s “shut down” for the season, will not even get back in uniform if his substitute Kirk Cousins or Rex Grossman are injured. The team will find a quarterback off the street before Shanny will allow RGIII, who’s in perfect health, to put on a uniform for him again.
Good thing it’s not “personal,” right, Mike?
Obviously, everything with the Thinskins is instantly and deeply personal whenever things go bad. Neither Daniel Snyder nor Mike Shanahan finds it easy to respect the pride or stature of others while exerting their own authority with subtlety. One such over-loaded ego atop a team is trouble. The owner’s plane fetish, with “Redskin One” a play on “Air Force One,” is enough of a tip-off. Two such men are dynamite, especially when the coach has skin as thin as parchment and a football-genius complex to match anyone.
To make the mix worse, Snyder abets the grandiosity of his favorite stars. He overpays or dotes on them, creates an entitled atmosphere. Before Griffin had won much, the team stroked him, promoted him worldwide, as if he had won everything. With any coach, that’d be toxic. With Shanahan, it was a lock to trigger a nuke meltdown.
The current Washington comedy catastrophe is even worse than most Snyder-era escapades because Shanahan’s inflated self-regard demands that he be the biggest man in the room. To ensure that status, he’ll belittle, undermine and break rivals for status. Some, such as Albert Haynesworth, merit it. Others, such as Donovan McNabb, are dumbstruck and departed before they know what hit them.
Few teams have ever had such a concoction of egos gone exponential. Shanahan hired his son as offensive coordinator, ensuring that no player would ever be favored in a showdown over his own child. Snyder has palled around with his top star before and did it again with Griffin, who has always seen limitless attention as his natural state.
On top of that double-barreled favoritism — Snyder for Griffin, and Shanny I for Shanny II — add this final diabolical twist in the pride plot: Griffin wears a roman numeral, not a name, on the back of his jersey. He carries his own father on his back, advertising a hero creation myth built on the values of his two military parents.
With RGII sometimes acting as barely-veiled spokesman for his son or showing up in the locker room after a defeat, the crossfire of egos was complete. Why not just issue bandeleros and play the gunfight soundtrack from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”
As his won-lost record deflates, Shanahan’s best game plans now seem to be about revenge. There, his strategies are elegant. It helps that he has inverted Ben Franklin’s code that “honesty is the best policy.” Has a coach ever before used a news conference, as Shanahan did Wednesday, to announce that honesty is his last policy?
At least the coach finally told one truth this week, admitting what everyone already knew: he screwed up and got Griffin injured last year against Seattle. It’s on him.
“After it happens, it’s too late. Just like the Seattle game at halftime,” Shanahan said. “I could have kicked myself in the rear end . . . I know, my gut, I watched [RGIII]. I said, hey, that’s what I should have done. Cause I did see it . . . and, again, this is what you do for a living, you’ve been around it. You’ve got to make sure you take care of your best players.”
For two free tickets to the Super Bowl, diagram that sentence.
Truth-telling is hard work when you’re out of practice. Why spill the beans? Shanny can only bring himself to be honest when it is in his interests: He wants to be fired, so taking the blame for RGIII’s demolished knee should be 10 times enough cause in itself.
This wreckage is so total that it could catalyze a culture change. Okay, maybe not. Snyder is still owner. But lessons could be learned, problems subtracted. My Way Mike, a smart coach, but a vindictive scorched-earth nightmare in bad times, will be gone.
The most likely to learn from the last horrid 12 months is Griffin. His Me-fomercial ESPN rehab special almost “LeBron-ed” him. It wasn’t “The Decision.” But it was a bad decision. Like “Griffining” after touchdowns as a rookie.
Who you truly are matters most. But how you’re perceived by your world, if it’s wrong enough and mean enough, can alter who you become. RGIII needs some self-imposed vanity management. His humiliating “shutdown” may actually help.
To prove Shanny wrong, Griffin will work fanatically now to learn to be a defense-reading pocket-passing NFL quarterback who also uses speed, not a college spread-offense pistolero. And for the last three games, Cousins, a feel-good beneficiary in this mess, can try to play himself into a trade to a team that wants him as a possible starter.
In the 17th century, it was written, “With the exception of vanity, heroes are made just like other men.” Our elite players are coached, from childhood, to develop “athletic arrogance.” By the time they become pros, there’s no bigger job for those who own teams, or who select and coach NFL players, than to figure out how to blend so many outsized personalities with bench-press-a-bus talent. Dealing successfully with problems of NFL fame and wealth, jock vanity and the proper uses of ego, starts at the top.
Right now, Washington does not have a single person with any skill in that area.
That’s why vanity volcanoes and pride putsches have been a source of jaw-dropping implosasters for 14 years. The egos at FedEx Field, from the owner’s box to the sideline, are brutally bruised right now. Usually, that’s bad. But in the case of this one conceited run-amok franchise, it might actually be good.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.