Mike Shanahan, faced with biggest decisions, failed Redskins, Robert Griffin III

Jason Reid
Columnist January 7, 2013

The correct call was obvious to almost everyone who watched Robert Griffin III drag his right leg around FedEx Field on Sunday night. But Washington Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan chose not to see it.

Shanahan should have pulled Griffin early from Washington’s 24-14 playoff loss to Seattle. No matter how much Griffin protested — and the competitive star surely would have — Shanahan could have ordered Griffin to take a seat long before his injured right knee buckled late in the game. Both for Griffin’s physical well-being and the long-term future of the franchise, Shanahan needed to do what he’s paid for: make a smart decision under pressure.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

Instead, Washington’s undisputed leader picked the worst possible time to go with his heart. By permitting a 22-year-old rookie to make one of the biggest calls of his coaching career, Shanahan risked ruining much of what he built during an unexpectedly successful season that ended painfully for Griffin and the team. We’ll have to wait a little longer to find out exactly how bad the gut punch could be.

The Redskins plan to conduct additional medical tests on Griffin’s damaged knee. We’ve heard, however, the news probably won’t be good. An MRI exam suggested Griffin, who also had a serious right knee injury as a college sophomore in 2009, suffered partial tears of his anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments.

Obviously, the Redskins should take whatever time they need to devise a sound plan to help Griffin. For owner Daniel Snyder’s team, there’s nothing more important than getting the record-setting Griffin back on the job as soon as possible. It’s just that the Redskins wouldn’t be in this position if Shanahan had done his job better against the Seahawks.

Ligaments work to allow the knee to bend forward while limiting its ability to rotate and flex side-to-side. On the play in which Robert Griffin III was hurt, the lower half of his knee makes both of those movements to excess, suggesting an injury to the anterior cruciate ligament.

Immediately after Griffin’s uh-oh moment in the opening quarter, backup Kirk Cousins became the Redskins’ best option at quarterback. Without being hit, Griffin, who planted on his right knee and threw across his body, came up hobbling following an incompletion. It didn’t matter that Griffin threw a touchdown pass two plays later. Griffin wasn’t right. It showed for the remainder of the game.

Clearly unable to put weight on his right knee, Griffin sailed throws high and threw grounders. On designed runs, he looked more like a plodding offensive lineman than an Olympic-class hurdler who has covered 40 yards in 4.41 seconds.

The guy who has control over all Redskins football decisions should have used some of his power to protect Griffin from himself.

Griffin is the type to stay on the field no matter what. He always wants to be in the game. That’s admirable. And Griffin’s selflessness in pursuit of group success is the main reason his teammates are fiercely loyal to him.

Even on Monday, as players expressed concern about Griffin’s status entering the offseason, none argued he should have been lifted.

“Robert’s our quarterback,” veteran wide receiver Santana Moss said, without any hint of second-guessing in his voice. “If he says he can play, he can play. That’s what players do.”

And that’s why there’s management. On the Redskins’ football organizational chart, no one is higher than Shanahan. That’s the way he wanted it. He wouldn’t have come to Washington without the authority to run the operation his way.

The Washington Post’s Mike Jones breaks down the Redskins’ loss against the Seattle Seahawks and Robert Griffin III’s injured knee. (The Washington Post)

To whom much is given, though, much is expected. When you control every aspect of the program from the strategy on offense and defense to the where furniture is placed — it was Shanahan’s decision to have couches put near the locker room at Redskins Park — you can’t fumble when the health of the most important player in the organization is at stake.

Shanahan would say he didn’t err. In fact, after speaking privately with Shanahan in his office Monday, I left convinced that, if Shanahan could do it all over again, he wouldn’t change a thing.

“I completely trust Robert,” Shanahan told me. “He has proved it to me.”

During our conversation, Shanahan revealed he planned to remove Griffin, who appeared slow to Shanahan while running out of bounds, in the second quarter of Washington’s Week 16 victory over Philadelphia.

“He told me was fine,” Shanahan said, recalling the conversation. “And he lasted the whole game.”

That memory contributed to Shanahan’s mistake in sticking with Griffin against the Seahawks.

Such decisions in the heat of the moment are never easy, but Sunday, Griffin’s play couldn’t mask his condition. After the first-quarter drive on which Griffin appeared to aggravate the knee, Washington’s offense managed just 80 more yards. Sitting down Griffin wasn’t just a safer long-term move; it was a better strategy for trying to win the game.

Shanahan deserves a lot of credit for turning the Redskins into winners again. He was right often. Shanahan whiffed, though, on his most important decision. And now Griffin and the Redskins may have to pay a big price.

For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.

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