There is no confusion over Robert Griffin III’s knee — and there never was. The Washington Redskins drafted a healthy, thrilling young player and by the time they got done using him up this season he lurched around like a pirate with a peg leg. Let’s be clear: Griffin is not suffering from an old injury, or from just one injury, either. Anyone with eyes saw the kid hurt his knee three times in the past month, twice in the same playoff game, until a strained ligament turned into a torn one. Every decision maker in the organization, from the rock-headed coach to the renowned surgeon in the silly team pompom cap, is responsible for that.
Yeah, we get the cute distinction between “injured” and “hurt” that Coach Mike Shanahan keeps trying to make, and we understand the play-with-pain culture of the NFL. But here is the real distinction: Griffin started an NFC playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks already hurt and wound up so badly injured that he requires surgery on his torn lateral collateral ligament, and his future is compromised. The supposed confusion over how much Shanahan and orthopedic surgeon James Andrews consulted on the sideline, and over the extent of damage to Griffin’s knee, is nothing more than rope-a-dope and rationalizing, feeble attempts to excuse the indefensible.
Griffin should never have been back on the field after halftime against the Seahawks last Sunday, and if the people in the organization weren’t so starved for success, they would have made a better decision about that.
There is nothing subtle about the situation. Ample evidence shows Griffin shouldn’t have been out there, more than enough to override the pleas of an impassioned rookie who wanted to play. Griffin’s right knee has already been reconstructed once, in 2009 when he was at Baylor University. The Redskins spent three first-round draft picks to get Griffin in uniform, and he is the most expensive and valuable player they have had in 25 years. Do you think for a moment they didn’t study MRI exams of that knee as if it were Sanskrit before giving up those draft choices for him? You think they don’t know what his knee should look like?
Four weeks ago, when Griffin hurt his LCL against the Baltimore Ravens, the Redskins were overjoyed to announce that an MRI showed no structural damage at that time. He had just a “strained” ligament. There was no trouble reading that picture — it was totally clear to them.
You didn’t need a grainy medical film to know that Griffin came back too soon from the LCL strain when he completed just 9 of 18 passes for 100 yards and no touchdowns against the Dallas Cowboys in the final game of the regular season. A deadly accurate 70 percent passer became a so-so 50 percent passer.
What a strain means is that the ligament is dangerously stretched, if not already partially torn. There was only one real question for Shanahan and Andrews from that point on: whether Griffin could continue to play without injuring himself further. The whole point of putting him in a cumbersome leg brace was to prevent an injury from turning into something worse.
“Probably doesn’t have to wear it, but the doctors thought it would be best for him to wear it, to protect it, so we don’t further injure the LCL,” Shanahan said last week.
It was the one thing they were all supposed to be guarding against.
In the opening quarter against the Seahawks, it was plain that something went badly wrong with the knee. Griffin opened the game by completing 6 of 9 passes for 68 yards and two touchdowns. But he wrenched his knee on an incompletion just before he threw the second touchdown. He completed just 4 of 11 passes and ran just one keeper over the next three quarters, clearly laboring, until that hideous moment when he was so stiff-legged that he couldn’t recover a fumbled snap and his leg slid out from under him at that awkward angle.
To repeat: Somehow the Redskins allowed their top draft choice, their best quarterback in a generation, to hurt his knee three times without adequately protecting their investment. The guess here is that Griffin will be lucky to be fully healthy in a year, and frankly, if he has fully torn the anterior cruciate ligament, there is some question as to whether that knee will ever be quite the same.
There is plenty of blame to spread for this state of affairs. What was Andrews doing on that sideline, other than wearing a team hat and providing political cover? Let’s not overlook the role of those who let Kenny Chesney fans and assorted college teams trample FedEx Field into such execrable condition without properly repairing it. Then there is Griffin himself, who hasn’t yet learned to play with discretion and to protect others’ investment in him.
But the one who had more responsibility than anyone else was Shanahan. He wanted institutional control of the Redskins, prized a CEO-like role, and he got it. There is no taking the burden of this decision off him. It is no great pleasure to say this, because what Shanahan did with the Redskins this season was worthy of deep respect, right up until this week.
Shanahan may be too flinty and defensive to say it, but he made quite simply one of the worst decisions of his life as head coach, and it’s hard to believe that behind closed doors, away from the second-guessing media, he isn’t ramming his head into a wall over it. We can’t know what his “gut” decision to let Griffin keep playing was based on, whether it was his own extreme disposition as a former quarterback who played hurt to the point that he ruptured his kidney, or whether he was simply too indulgent of Griffin, allowed his quarterback to spellbind him as he has the audience.
There isn’t a coach on the planet who doesn’t obsess over knees, who doesn’t know exactly what stresses them, and who can’t diagram a knee. They all understand how playing with an injury alters movement, and creates complications and potential chain reactions. It’s hard to believe that Shanahan didn’t understand exactly what was going on when Griffin’s accuracy fell from 70 percent to 50 percent — that he couldn’t plant properly on that knee. Above all, Shanahan should have understood whom he was dealing with: Griffin plays a dangerous brand of football with his legs, one that courts injury in the first place.
For a while, it looked like the RGIII-Shanahan partnership was so good, so electric, that they could overcome the Redskins’ terrible recent past. Instead, all of the old organizational flaws seem present again: the half-truths and rationalizations for terrible decisions, and the habit of spending too heavily today and mortgaging tomorrow.
For previous columns by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/