Mike Shanahan tried to stick with Robert Griffin III, and might have lost him instead

The Washington Post's Mike Jones analyzes what's in store for the Redskins when they take on the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday. (Mike Jones & Sandi Moynihan/The Washington Post)
Mike Wise
Columnist December 2, 2013

On the heels of playoff hope being snuffed out Sunday against the New York Giants a full month before the season officially concludes, let’s first operate on one clear premise: This season was on very unstable ground before it began. All attempts to obfuscate or minimize the tensions between the divergent camps of the coach and the quarterback, in hindsight, were either damage control or outright denial.

It’s whyMike Shanahan raised eyebrows when, asked repeatedly why Alfred Morris didn’t carry the ball more in the loss to New York, said there were option-pitch plays for Morris but that Robert Griffin III decided to keep the ball and run himself in those instances.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Given all the he-said, he-said history between the coach and the quarterback this season, Shanahan couldn’t just be candid in the moment. Every word had to be parsed, examined. There had to be something else.

And, of course, there was. There always has been.

The truth: Soon after Griffin’s devastating knee injury last January, Shanahan reached out to the Griffin family. Putting himself in the shoes of Griffin’s parents — knowing he would want the same clarity if it were his child writhing in pain on the ground of FedEx Field in the waning moments of that playoff loss to Seattle and had undergone major knee surgery — the coach merely wanted to explain what led up to the most crucial, in-game, on-the-fly decision of his tenure in Washington.

Shanahan eventually was able to communicate those thoughts — but not before he was originally rebuffed, according to people on both sides with knowledge of last January’s events who spoke on condition of anonymity in interviews over the past three weeks.

Robert Griffin Jr. appreciated the coach’s gesture. But he also felt Shanahan needed to worry strictly about coaching his football team rather than building a stronger bond with his son, that what’s done is done and that both parties needed to move forward and concentrate on ensuring Griffin’s health wasn’t put in jeopardy again by anyone or anything — ego, play-calling or the quarterback’s own stubborn pride.

A point of clarification here: The source of the Griffins’ discontent over the whole episode wasn’t that a gimpy Robert was allowed to continue playing, especially because he did everything but beg to be on the field; no, it was the play-calling of Kyle Shanahan, the team’s offensive coordinator and Mike’s son, after Griffin was first hurt that they felt put him at further risk.

That led to an offseason of ominous tweets, texts to ESPN anchors and quotes the next few months from Griffin and his father. Remember “a running quarterback is a losing quarterback”?

Though Shanahan did eventually convey some regret in his decision privately to Griffin, he refused to take blame publicly for what he claimed was a mutual decision made by all parties involved (himself, orthopedic surgeon James Andrews and Griffin).

That fateful day last January was the backdrop to everything this season. It became a larger story than Griffin’s rehabilitation, forking into how Griffin should be used at quarterback going forward. It carried over into training camp, with dueling notions of whether Griffin should play in the preseason and why he essentially was put in bubble-wrap before the season began.

It was never just a personality difference between two overly competitive men from different generations as much as it was a clear divide over what Robert Griffin III thought was best for him and what Mike Shanahan thought was best for his starting quarterback.

The only way those trust issues were ever going to be resolved was with wins, and Griffin remaining relatively healthy given the usual pounding any quarterback takes in the NFL. Only the latter happened.

“It’s not about me,” Griffin said late Sunday night, standing in front of his locker room cubicle after his news conference. “It’s not about Coach. It’s not about anything else that anyone wants to come out with. It’s about all these guys in this locker room. You don’t want to let your guys down.”

Asked whether he felt he let his team down last January, he added, “I’ve talked [about it] a thousand times. That game, that situation, that exact moment . . . you’re playing. If it happened to me in the future, I’ve learned the hard way. I have the experience now to know when not to play.”

Why is it hard to outright call for Shanahan’s job? Because of his original reasons for letting Griffin continue to play that day.

The overriding factor, in speaking with people close to Shanahan who spoke freely on the condition they not be named, was that the coach believed Griffin deserved the opportunity to try to win the game and he was afraid to lose Griffin’s trust going forward if he didn’t give him that chance.

The irony is that decision — to let Griffin run around until his right knee ligaments were shredded — did more to undermine trust in Griffin and his family than any My-Way Mike decree to bench him could have.

Because of the time and reps Griffin needed to be effective after surgery, because his legs and arm simply couldn’t bail out his undermanned defense and substandard talent on offense like last season, Shanahan’s decision set the table for this 3-9 eyesore of a team, which is hands-down the most disappointing unit in the NFL this season other than Atlanta and Houston.

Let’s not sugar-coat it: This is a reeling team with myriad problems. Jettisoning another coach seems too easy and trite. Shanahan almost should be tasked to come back and be given one more year to fix what’s wrong.

With four games left, this isn’t about whether Daniel Snyder wants to bring Shanahan back. That was settled the moment he signed Shanahan to a five-year, $35 million deal in 2010, a contract that broke down to $7 million per season. No owner wants to pay someone $7 million not to work.

This is about perception. Can the owner sell the coach coming back to a disenfranchised fan base? Can he write this off as a mulligan that included Griffin’s return from surgery and the second year of an NFL-mandated salary-cap penalty?

Here’s the final irony: Only one person in the organization can help Snyder sell that, and it’s unclear whether Robert Griffin III is interested in Shahanan being his head coach and Kyle Shanahan being his offensive coordinator after all they’ve been through together the past two seasons.

Crazy, no? The man whose legendary Denver Broncos teams Griffin fantasized about playing for growing up didn’t turn out to be the same coach in reality. Like Griffin, he turned out to be flawed, human — so much so he jeopardized the franchise’s future out of a desire to strengthen his bond to it.

The idea that Mike Shanahan could also lose everything else because of that decision 11 months ago shouldn’t sit well with anyone who has ever made a rash, emotional decision in a time of professional crisis.

For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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