Weeks ago, an observer with connections in the Washington Redskins’ locker room described the heart murmur plaguing the club in the following way: “Ask yourself this: If Mike Shanahan wants to bench Robert Griffin III, can he?” The fact that there was even a doubt suggested the illness. Shanahan is now calling the question publicly, and he’s right to do so, because if he can’t bench Griffin, then he’s not really the head coach, and in fact no one will ever be Griffin’s coach, they’ll just be his concierges.
This is a Shanahan power play, of course. He didn’t suggest he might sit Griffin for the last three games of the season just because he had a sudden fit of conscience over the kid’s health. It has become a game of show and tell: Shanahan wanted to see if the much-petted quarterback would run to owner Dan Snyder, and if the owner would pacify him. He’s seeking public evidence his authority was undermined. Shanahan seems to be suggesting this is a force that helped destroy his locker room and flip a playoff team into a 3-10 one.
It’s said that matters between Shanahan and Snyder are irreconcilable. The owner is publicly trying to act bewildered and hands-off: A leak from the team Tuesday that Snyder won’t intervene if Shanahan goes ahead with a benching had a “Who, me?” ring. But if Snyder has truly matured and wants to do what’s right for the organization, he will de-escalate this management crisis even further, by giving Shanahan a vote of confidence and another year. Because that’s what this is: a management crisis. If Shanahan is sacrificed to Griffin, there won’t be anybody, be it Art Briles or Pepe Le Pew, who can coach this team.
Give Griffin a pass on this much: He’s 23, and it may be difficult for him to realize how his special-child relationship with Snyder could corrode an NFL locker room and kill a team. But Snyder should have known: He’s the adult, and he’s been through this several times before.
Remember the move Bruce Smith put on an imperiled Steve Spurrier in 2003? Smith, the 37-year-old husk of a defensive end with a $23 million deal, got publicly sore-headed when Spurrier benched him, and took the matter upstairs.
“I want to know what their intentions are,” Smith said. “At some point and time in your career, you have to take a stand and be a little selfish.”
The Redskins were 3-5, but Smith thought it was more important to chase Reggie White’s career sacks record. After two days of complaining he got what he wanted: an assurance he would start. “Its my understanding the situation has been taken care of,” he said.
It was Spurrier’s death knell, and a bad season got even worse. The Redskins finished 5-11, and the evidence that Spurrier had no authority resulted in a series of slaughters. Over the last three games, they were outscored, 85-31.
Sound familiar? Griffin recently was asked if he had any concerns he could be benched.
“No, that’s not an issue,” he said. Last three games, this team has been outscored, 96-33.
Shanahan denies having cleaned out his desk over the limousine-cozy Snyder-Griffin relationship at the end of last season. But there’s no question that Shanahan has been deeply unhappy about it for months – “miserable” is one word bandied about – and you can’t really blame him. According to Shanahan, he told Snyder this week that he is Griffin’s “coach, his head coach, and not necessarily his best friend, don’t need to be his best friend.” Name another man in the league who had to explain such a thing to his owner about a second-year player.
Jim Irsay is obviously a handful of an owner, but when the Indianapolis Colts lose, Coach Chuck Pagano doesn’t have to worry about what Irsay and Andrew Luck might be whispering to each other. Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll isn’t sitting around preoccupied with whether Russell Wilson approves of how he is being used, and what he might do about it.
Shanahan has weaknesses as a coach and roster builder, no question, but the evidence suggests this crisis is not of his making. Radioactive public dramas and 3-10 seasons have never been part of his résumé; those are not his signatures. His record before he arrived in Washington’s dysfunction was long and solid, and his reputation with locker room leaders not named Griffin is that he’s hard but fair, and direct.
Trust between a quarterback and coach is paramount. The quarterback needs to feel the coach is doing everything in his power to help him succeed, and the coach needs to know that when he makes an aggressive call, the quarterback will do his best to make it look smart. That relationship didn’t exist between Shanahan and Griffin this season; the trust was broken, replaced by resentment. What went wrong is very simple, and Shanahan has decided to rip the cover off it: There is too much confusion over who is the player and who is the coach. If Snyder fires Shanahan for that, his next head coach might as well be Griffin’s personal shopper.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.