In this past week’s episode of “My Miraculous Offseason Recovery,” we entertain the question, “What’s in a text?” Really, what do the tea leaves mean when Robert Griffin III texts ESPN host Trey Wingo: “My first NFL season and my injury that ended it showed me a lot about the league, my team and myself. i know where my responsibility is within the dilemma that led to me having surgery to repair my knee and all parties involved know their responsibilities as well.”
Let’s read that last part again: “all parties involved know their responsibilities as well.”
What’s in a text? Everything, including job security for Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan.
Four years ago, Daniel Snyder needed Shanahan more than Shanahan needed Snyder. The owner’s franchise was a dumpster fire and credibility was everything. Snyder didn’t hire an experienced two-time Super Bowl champion coach as much as he hired a crisis-intervention specialist. Within one chaotic Haynesworth-less year, order was restored and My-Way Mike became the face of the franchise.
But there’s a new sheriff in town. His name is Robert Griffin III. In the 12 dizzying months since he was drafted, his value has become greater than anyone in the organization. His words carry more weight with the public than any player, coach or owner. He is Snyder’s meal ticket, his real bridge to ever being viewed as a respectable and Super Bowl-worthy owner.
So if I’m Shanahan, I parse Griffin’s text messages, quotes, public statements, sneers and smiles even more obsessively than fans or the media. And I look for the slightest hint of disappointment in the coaching staff, the play-calling of Kyle Shanahan, the team’s medical protocols, everything.
And I ask myself the hardest questions any autocratic leader of a football team has to ask himself: How do I put myself on the same page as my franchise quarterback? How do I ensure Robert feels we have his best interests at heart as we try to win a Lombardi Trophy together?
He doesn’t have to take Griffin’s opinion seriously in matters of health, because every 20-something football player thinks he can play even if he physically can’t. But Shanahan better listen to what Griffin is saying between the lines about everything else, because here’s what the tea leaves say to me: Griffin understands he needs to protect himself better, but the less he’s sent out as a receiver on flea-flicker passes, the fewer zigzagging wide-right or wide-left designed runs that are called by the coach’s son, the better chances of Griffin remaining on the field for an entire season.
If Shanahan is going to maximize his investment in Griffin, some of the play-calling might to have to change. Now. Because when Griffin writes, “all parties involved know their responsibilities as well,” he means Kyle, too.
If Shanahan really wants a contract extension from Snyder — if he ever wants to be the one who stands atop of the podium, smiling with Griffin, holding the trophy — he may want to more closely consider his relationship with Griffin.
Jeff Van Gundy, the former NBA coach and now ESPN analyst, once told me coaches rise or fall based on their relationship with their best player. If it’s solid and they win, coach stays. If it’s not, coach goes — sometimes in spite of wins.
“Why do you think I lasted so long in New York? Because Patrick Ewing knew I had his best interests in mind in every decision I made for the team,” Van Gundy said. “He wasn’t just an all-time NBA center, he was my best player, the reason I had the job in many ways. If I wasn’t on the same page with him, I wasn’t going to be coaching very long.”
NFL owners, more than other owners of major sports franchises, side with their coaches more often than their players. But Snyder is not just any NFL owner. He has gone out of his way to seek friendship with some of his stars. LaVar Arrington and Clinton Portis come immediately to mind. Griffin is the next player relationship he’s trying to cultivate.
In November, the Snyder family stayed behind in Dallas to celebrate Thanksgiving with the Griffin family. Snyder was one of the people who accompanied Griffin to orthopedic surgeon James Andrews’s office in Florida after he injured his knee in the last game of the season. Snyder is now enlisting Griffin’s recruiting skills to entice free agents to sign with Washington. Griffin attended a private dinner with Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield on Thursday night.
The days of Portis being able to go over the coach’s head and seek a private audience with Snyder when things were going bad were said to be over when Shanahan and General Manager Bruce Allen arrived. No breaches of command, remember?
But Griffin isn’t merely a star player. He’s bigger. If Washington had its very own Sports Illustrated list of its most influential people, the wealth and decision-making power of Snyder and Wizards-Capitals owner Ted Leonsis would be an easy 1-2. But in the athlete-coach category, Griffin is unquestionably No. 1 — several rungs above Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Pierre Garcon, Davey Johnson and, yes, Shanahan.
For as much as the coach controls his playing time, his designed running plays that can put him at risk and the play-action passes that require precise decision-making, Griffin controls Shanahan’s future in Washington. Not the other way around.
And the quicker the coach learns that and gets expressly on the same page with his player, the quicker he can get back on the path to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. If his stubbornness and refusal to accept blame when he’s wrong continues, he will lose the support of his owner and, ostensibly, his job.
What’s in a text? Shanahan now needs Griffin more than Snyder needs Shanahan.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.