Robert Griffin III has a knee to repair, and a mind-set to hone

Washington Post columnist Jason Reid talks about his conversation with Redskins’ head coach Mike Shanahan and describes why he thinks Shanahan should have benched Robert Griffin III in the Redskins’ loss to the Seahawks. (The Washington Post)
Jason Reid
Columnist January 10, 2013

No one knows for sure when Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III will play again. And it’s unclear whether Griffin, after the second reconstructive surgery on his right knee in four years, will regain the unique form that made him an NFL star. But this much is certain: Whenever Griffin returns to the football field, he’ll have to change his approach in order to stay on it.

The team’s most important player must show as much maturity in games as he does while commanding the interview room.

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

The surgical scars on his knee should serve as reminders that it’s time for Griffin to stop taking unnecessary risks.

Griffin is young. He believes he’s indestructible. Griffin doesn’t need to be scolded for making a young man’s mistakes.

It’s just that when the NFL is your workplace, you have to protect yourself better than Griffin has so far. By being honest with himself, Griffin, 22, could find the right path.

One of Griffin’s biggest strengths is also his Achilles’ heel: athletic arrogance.

Even when they’re not at their best because of injuries or illness, elite athletes believe they’re still much better than the people behind them on the depth chart.

The any-percentage-of-me-is-better-than-100-percent-of-the-next-guy philosophy is what drove Griffin to keep playing after he did something to his knee while throwing a pass in the first quarter Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks after initially injuring his knee against the Baltimore Ravens in the regular season.

Although it’s impossible to determine whether that play was the one on which Griffin tore knee ligaments, it was clear to everyone seated in the stadium or anyone watching on television that Griffin’s performance was far worse after that point. Griffin continued to tell Coach Mike Shanahan he was fine because that’s what Griffin does. In the process, Griffin hurt himself and his team.

Perhaps the Redskins would have won if Kirk Cousins entered the game before Griffin’s knee buckled in a stomach-turning sight late during the final quarter. Or maybe Washington would have lost. Regardless of the possible outcome, though, Griffin should have listened to his body. Griffin needed to protect both his future and the franchise.

Griffin is chiefly responsible for making the Redskins winners again. Now, the one player the team can’t afford to lose may miss part of the 2013 season — or all of it. There’s nothing gallant about being reckless.

But if you listen to Redskins people long enough, you could walk away convinced that Griffin did nothing wrong. Linebacker London Fletcher understands Griffin’s thinking.

The Post’s LaVar Arrington wonders if Robert Griffin III will ever be the same quarterback after suffering another knee injury in the Redskins’ loss to the Seahawks and offers his injured pinky as a small example of this type of damage that a body can absorb during a career in football. (The Washington Post)

During his 15-year NFL career, Fletcher has seen few athletes as gifted as Griffin. As he watched Griffin hobble against Seattle, Fletcher never gave up hope that Griffin would make a big play to pull out a victory. “Guys like Robert . . . that’s what they do,” Fletcher said. “They can play with pain and still just kind of rise to the occasion.”

Sure, it happens. While playing with a separated shoulder, Emmitt Smith gained 229 yards from scrimmage in a victory that gave Dallas home-field advantage throughout the 1993 NFC playoffs. Despite suffering from dehydration and flu-like symptoms during Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals, Michael Jordan scored 38 points to put Chicago within one win of a championship.

Difference is, Smith and Jordan didn’t put their careers at risk by playing in those games. Griffin’s speed and elusiveness are a big part of what makes him special. He already had one major knee injury.

“But you can’t expect him to turn it on and off,” Fletcher said. “He’s going to do whatever he thinks he has to do to win.”

That was evident after Griffin gave lip service to playing it safe earlier in the season. Following a concussion, Griffin promised his family, teammates and coaches he would play smarter. That lasted a few games.

Griffin’s knee injury occurred late in the season when he ran into the teeth of Baltimore’s defense in an attempt to gain more yards, instead of heading toward the sideline or sliding. He simply can’t do that anymore. That’s what Griffin’s body is screaming at him.

Shanahan, who has the final say on Redskins football matters, hasn’t been nearly as loud as he should be on the subject. Shanahan brought Griffin to Washington and tailored the offense to Griffin’s skills. But the most powerful man in the team’s football operation seems almost intimidated by Griffin.

It’s somewhat understandable. Shanahan’s first two years in the District were awful on and off the field. He couldn’t find a competent quarterback and often put his foot in his mouth. Then Griffin arrived, and the Redskins’ first NFC East championship since the 1999 season followed.

Griffin told Shanahan he wanted to stay in against Seattle. Shanahan remembered how angry Griffin was when Cousins started against Cleveland the week after Griffin injured his knee. If he yanked him from a playoff game, he risked the ire of his franchise player.

Still, Shanahan has a job to do. He’s paid $7 million a season to make smart decisions under pressure. In his biggest moment of this season, Shanahan dropped the ball. Eventually, Griffin would have gotten over any hurt feelings. Even stars don’t always get what they want.

Griffin faces many months of grueling rehabilitation. It will be a hard road back for him. As he struggles to get his body right, Griffin will have a lot of time to think about putting his safety first.

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

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