The genuine hold-your-breath moment for Robert Griffin III came in Week 5, and it made everyone from Mike Shanahan to Millie from Fredericksburg cringe and instantly realize the hard truth: There is no replacement for unbridled hope on the field. Until the kid takes his Redskins uniform off, preferably late in the 2020s, he is very well that hope — the one link between legitimacy and nowheresville as a franchise.
It’s why when Griffin went down, laid out by a Falcons linebacker near the sideline in the third quarter of Washington’s 24-17 loss to Atlanta, the several seconds he was on the ground before rising groggily felt like forever.
After the diagnosis of a minor concussion, an oxymoron if there ever was one in this bone-jarring sport, the unfortunate takeaway for the Redskins from here on out is this: How can they possibly win without him?
The moment his head rocked back, the season was suddenly in the balance, held hostage by the health of a 22-year-old who incredibly was still in college just six months ago. And no one can exhale until Griffin comes back healthy and whole, because he has already become that essential to his team’s success.
The crowd at FedEx Field was silent and listless after the injury. Oh, there was the momentary exhilaration of backup quarterback Kirk Cousins finding Santana Moss behind coverage for a go-ahead touchdown. But the Falcons intercepted Cousins twice late. And a defense that was nails for much of the day finally couldn’t stop Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan when it meant the most, which brought even more clarity:
However long Cousins has the job, he’s not that Redskins’ rookie quarterback.
Griffin went home and not to the hospital Sunday afternoon, so that’s the good news. But he couldn’t tell an independent neurologist on the sideline what the score was or what quarter it was, and the team knew within minutes that he was not coming back to the game.
Now, how this became translated from the field to the press box as “shaken up, return questionable” is beyond unacceptable in this day and age of the concussion-obsessed NFL, which is being sued for millions in class-action lawsuits filed by former players who claim the league didn’t protect them enough.
Even in paranoid NFL-speak, Griffin didn’t have his “bell rung.” He wasn’t trying to “shake off a stinger.” The man’s brain was rattled from a crunching hit in which his head ricocheted back and his helmet had to be taken away so he could not return. What exactly does that have to do with “shaken up, return questionable?”
The Redskins get one measure of credit for acknowledging after the game that Griffin suffered from a concussion, because once that word is used the decision on when he is cleared to play again has to be made by an independent neurologist — and not the team.
This was my biggest fear for Griffin when the season began: that Shanahan knew it was going to take time to develop a traditional pocket quarterback because of the spread-option scheme Griffin played at Baylor. Yet because Shanahan also knew he needed to put some wins in Washington on his resume before the locals grew restless and angry, Griffin’s legs were too tantalizing to pass up as a bona fide weapon.
Walking that tight rope — balancing between making sure Griffin morphs more into a passer than a runner while simultaneously giving his team and his boss the victories he needs to finish out his contract, and perhaps beyond — is Shanahan’s most difficult job.
And it’s doubly tough when Griffin is so hell-bent on proving his toughness to the rest of a kill-the-quarterback NFL.
“We talked about this from Day 1,” Shanahan said afterward. “Each game is going to be a learning experience; from Cincinnati to Tampa. We talked about protecting yourself; we talked about handing the ball off [on] option plays. Every game he goes in, he’s going to learn and that’s why it will take you two or three years to really feel comfortable . . . in the NFL, to slow the game down a little bit. And Robert is going to keep on learning.”
In no way did a play-call or too much of a run-Robert attack lead to Griffin’s concussion. If anything, he probably should have tried to eschew all contact as he got closer to that sideline, before Sean Weatherspoon put that lick on him; he had all of one carry in the game before that play, which was a bootleg option around the right side.
But the hit more than clarified the danger any time Griffin takes off galloping. He’s got to play and be healthy for this grand rebuild plan to work — or else.
He goes down and not just a starting quarterback’s health is at stake; the franchise’s hope of a winning season and the playoffs hangs in the balance. Jobs are at stake. An entire revenue stream that even a marketing guru like Daniel Snyder could not have envisioned is in instant jeopardy.
“Is RGIII okay?”
For most importantly his sake, and also Washington’s, let’s hope so.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.