Robert Griffin III: A breathtaking artist who makes fans hold their breath

We know that many great athletes are also great artists. We don’t like to talk about it, because every darn thing doesn’t have to be analyzed to death. Sport-as-art is a secret that we fans keep so the wrong people, the ones who can make “serious” art a misery with their pretension, can’t mess up our fun.

But sometimes it helps us see issues more clearly if we concede that Robert Griffin III, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Alex Ovechkin are artists in the process of creating, or celebrating, or bungling, or being cheated by fate of their life’s work.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

At a deep level, they are their work and want it that way; it may define them in their own eyes and demand sacrifices most people would never choose. Often, they suffer for their art, both psychologically and physically. If a musician or a painter or a filmmaker says, “This is who I am. This is what I’ve created. I don’t have a suggestion box,” we accept such independence, even defiance.

It’s easy for us to tell athletes they should run out of bounds more often, or stop hitting themselves in the head with a smashed bat, or change their pitching delivery to match the wisdom of the moment or stop seeking out those full-speed mid-ice collisions that add to their aura of menace.

Sometimes we’re right, maybe because we have distance or experience. If they can incorporate the wisdom of the commonplace (us), be our guests. For example, even Griffin’s own center, Will Montgomery, thinks he should work on sliding to avoid big hits in the open field.

The Post Sports Live crew put themselves in Mike Shanahan’s shoes and debate whether the Redskins head coach should start a less-than-100% Robert Griffin III over backup quarterback Kirk Cousins this week in Cleveland. (The Washington Post)

“It’s crazy some of the shots he’s taking . . . helicoptering his body through the air,” he told SiriusXM NFL Radio. “That’s not a way to make a living right there.”

Among artists, it’s assumed the whole complex person and the unique invaluable work are linked, tied in a knot you would never want to cut. It’s cliche to quote, “How can we tell the dancer from the dance.” But it’s true, too.

Personal history and special talent, psychological necessity and athletic style, and who knows what else, all get stirred in one pot in sports, too. What we get is performance. Be careful, or at least respectful, before you try to change it.

That being said, athletes and their teams can’t live in a world of, “Just do it your way.” They need to explore sensible, boring ways to prolong great careers. Maybe they reject them. But they should study them.

Sometimes, especially in baseball, it can be done. The Washington Nationals attempt it, aggressively. In the NFL, and in RGIII’s case, it’s harder. But it’s possible.

One reason the Nats traded for Denard Span was to get Harper, 6 feet 3, 220 pounds and still growing, out of center field, a position that grinds down big athletes over a career. Short-term, the Nats likely aren’t better with a singles-hitting defender in center; every team prefers a slugging Mickey Mantle. But you probably get the best total production from Harper by switching early.

Strasburg’s shutdown was also part of a larger pattern of developmental caution. From 2010 to 2012, his pitch selection changed after his elbow surgery. He threw 42 percent off-speed pitches (harder on the arm) as a rookie, but just 27 percent in his ’11 comeback, then returned to a middle ground of 35 percent off-speed last season. Long-term, that may be better.

That might be analogous to the number of running plays the Redskins call for Griffin, plus the number of his scrambles they tolerate. RGIII’s 112 rushes lead all NFL quarterbacks, ahead of 104 by Carolina’s 250-pound Cam Newton. The next highest is far back at 69. If Griffin ran a third less, he’d still rush more than anyone except Newton, who’s a (fast) moose to his gazelle.

Teams also control the time frame for recovery from injury. Players can beg “put me in, Coach,” all they want, but, as Strasburg found, it’s not their call.

If Griffin says he can play this Sunday, the Redskins face a classic decision. Oddsmakers say the Redskins have a 40 percent chance of making the playoffs. But if you assume two wins in their final three games, that number rises to 69 percent. And if they go 3-0, their odds are 99.9 percent.

Is that enough pressure? Whatever week Griffin returns, he won’t know how to throttle back even if he wanted to, Coach Mike Shanahan should assume. Griffin’s game is more ingrained response than it is sequential decisions.

After Sunday’s victory, RGIII said, “I think the guys were proud of me for coming back in” for four plays, before collapsing in pain. That’s frighteningly revealing about Griffin. Not one teammate thought, “Limp back in, Robert. Make me proud of you.” That prove-your-courage button resides so deep in Griffin he likely doesn’t know it exists or that he could dial it to down to “medium.”

The Redskins can try to get Griffin to run out of bounds a bit more often or, definitely, learn to slide like a pro. But the coaches still call the plays. At Griffin’s current pace of 11 rushes-plus-sacks per game, his disaster rate — one concussion, plus one near-serious injury in 13 starts — is probably predictive.

The guy has to run. It’s core to his game. But how much? His passer rating now leads the NFL. It excludes rushes. Hello? A week ago, Shanahan gave elaborate reasoning, or rationalizing, for Griffin’s high rush rate. Haloti Ngata clarified it all for me Sunday: Less is more.

Such logic-chopping has a place. But once the football is snapped or a ball is lined deep into the gap or the puck is dropped, Washington’s most visible athletes will play like who they are. It’ll be Strasmas. They’ll turn from Robert, Bryce and Alex into RGIII, BamBam and the Great Eight.

You can tweak ’em, but you can’t really change them. All four are high-risk, high-reward athletes with gifts and flare that make their work art. Ovechkin won two MVPs before his violent style began to take its toll. Each will follow his own arc, but not one that he, or we, will ever really control.

We hope we will watch and cheer for many years. But we already know they will always make us hold our breath.

For previous Thomas Boswell columns, go to washingtonpost.
com/boswell
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