The “observation room” behind the Washington Redskins’ bench at FedEx Field is little more than a small shed, painted burgundy, with a sloping roof. As Robert Griffin III entered it late in the first quarter of the Redskins’ 24-14 loss to Seattleon Jan. 6, he had to duck to get through the doorway. As he did so, he reached up and high-fived a fan who had leaned over the railing above to offer Griffin his hand in encouragement.
Griffin’s visit to the room was the result of a play moments before when, on a rollout to his right from the Seahawks’ 4-yard line, he planted on his right leg as he threw what turned out to be an incomplete pass, then crumpled to the ground, removed his helmet and grimaced in obvious pain.
And when Griffin exited the examination room a few moments later, what might have been the last, best chance to prevent further injury to his problematic knee had passed the Redskins by.
Griffin, with the blessing of Coach Mike Shanahan and the team’s medical staff, continued to play — mostly ineffectively — and by late in the fourth quarter of the first-round playoff game, when he could no longer go on, he had suffered what would later be diagnosed as a torn lateral collateral ligament in his right knee.
He underwent surgery on Jan. 9 to repair that tear, as well as revise the reconstruction of his anterior cruciate ligament, which he originally tore in 2009 as a sophomore at Baylor. The injury will require months of rehabilitation, calling into question Griffin’s availability for the start, if not all, of the 2013 season.
In the aftermath of the Seattle loss, an avalanche of criticism from fans and media was directed at Shanahan, the team’s medical staff and, to some degree, Griffin himself for ignoring the obvious visual clues that the quarterback’s knee was compromised. Although little has been made public about the deliberations behind the decision to keep Griffin in the game, or the medical measures taken that allowed him to play in the first place, a closer examination of the day’s events paints a fuller picture of the process.
According to a person with knowledge of the behind-the-scenes deliberations regarding Griffin’s knee behind the Redskins bench two weeks ago, the rookie quarterback, seated on an examination table in the small room while his knee was retaped, suddenly popped up and told the medical personnel: “I’m fine. I’m ready to go.”
While Griffin’s visit to the room in the first quarter was a pivotal moment in the timeline of that fateful game, it was hardly the only one. Griffin played six more offensive series, for a total of 24 more plays, before his knee gave out. He conferred with Shanahan on the sideline between at least some of those series, each time insisting he wanted to continue.
“You respect authority, and I respect Coach Shanahan,” Griffin said after the game, in what remains his last public comment since the injury. “But at the same time you have to step up and be a man sometimes, and there was no way I was coming out of that game.”
The last player announced to the crowd during pregame introductions, Griffin, in full uniform and with a brace over his right knee, strutted out of the giant inflatable helmet in the corner of the end zone, crossed himself, pointed to the sky and — with a sellout crowd roaring — took off with a hop-skip-and-jump that morphed into a full-blown sprint to the opposite end zone.
When Griffin came to the sideline prior to the game for his traditional greeting with his parents, his father, Robert Griffin Jr., told him: “You’ve worked hard. Now have some fun.” To his mother, Jacqueline, Griffin said, “I love you, mom,” and kissed her.
Griffin, who had suffered what was described as a grade one sprain of his LCL on Dec. 9 against Baltimore — causing him to miss the game the following week at Cleveland, against his wishes — had been telling family members all week that his knee was feeling good.
On the Wednesday before the Seattle game, during his usual midweek news conference, he had lobbied publicly to be allowed to play without the knee brace he had been wearing since the original injury.
“My leg, I can feel it healing,” Griffin had said, “so I might not wear the brace this week. . . . I try to do as much as I can without the brace, and whenever [the team’s medical personnel] find out I don’t have it on, I have to throw it on.”
Indeed, the person familiar with the situation said Griffin was constantly pushing the team’s medical staff to allow him to wear a brace with more flexibility than the doctors wanted. It was not clear whether he ever switched.
Four plays into the game, when the Redskins called for a quarterback keeper around the left side, Griffin passed up an obvious seam in the defense — which would have required a sharp cutback, the type of move he made constantly before the Dec. 9 injury — and continued gingerly toward the sideline for a modest three-yard gain.
That opening drive culminated in a four-yard touchdown pass to Evan Royster, giving the Redskins a 7-0 lead, and on their next possession the Redskins again pushed the ball inside the Seahawks’ 20-yard line.
Facing first and goal from the Seattle 4, Griffin took the snap, faked a handoff to running back Alfred Morris, and then rolled to his right. With Seattle outside linebacker Malcolm Smith converging on him as he neared the sideline, Griffin tried to stop himself – planting firmly on the right leg – and threw back across his body to wide receiver Pierre Garcon in the front of the end zone.
The throw fell short, and Griffin tumbled to the ground in pain, flipping his helmet off and rolling over to his stomach. When he got back up and put his helmet back on, he didn’t bother adjusting his knee brace, which had slid lower on his leg during the play. He hobbled badly as he returned to the huddle, but two plays later, Griffin completed a touchdown pass to tight end Logan Paulsen, pushing the Redskins’ lead to 14-0.
Griffin came to the sideline following the touchdown and after a quick talk with Shanahan, retreated to the observation shed behind the bench.
Among those who entered the room along with Griffin was James Andrews, the sports orthopedist who is also a Redskins team physician – and who, three days later in Gulf Breeze, Fla., would operate on Griffin’s knee. But here, he exited the room within a couple of minutes of entering it, and moments later Griffin exited as well.
One person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to question any medical decisions that were made and he was not authorized to discuss the case publicly, said Griffin asked trainers to retape his knee and adjust the brace, then popped up from the table and went back to the sideline.
Griffin, this individual said, “clearly wanted to get back on the field.”
Shanahan, reached by telephone Thursday, declined to discuss the details of the Seattle game or the conversations that took place on the sidelines and behind the scenes. But in his first public comments since Griffin’s surgery, he said: “I had Robert’s best interests at heart. I wish he hadn’t gotten hurt. We’re going to do everything we can to help him and support him as our quarterback. I know he’s going to make a speedy, full and fast recovery.”
According to players and others in the Redskins organization, Shanahan felt Griffin had earned the right to remain in the game unless the medical staff determined he shouldn't play, and feared that pulling him without being ordered by doctors to do so would permanently cost him the trust of Griffin and, by extension, the entire locker room.
“He has to listen to the player in this situation,” veteran linebacker London Fletcher said. “You’re talking about the franchise quarterback, a guy who has made so many plays to even get you to this point. If he tells you that he can go, you have to . . . let him go. This is the playoffs, this is a do-or-die situation.”
Andrews, who is based in Birmingham, Ala., and Gulf Breeze, Fla., has declined interview requests through his publicist. However, according to two people with knowledge of the day’s events, he and the other members of the team’s medical staff never told Shanahan at any point during the game that Griffin’s knee was injured too badly for him to continue playing.
In fact, according to one of those people, the medical staff informed Shanahan they believed Griffin’s knee was intact structurally, that its condition was no different than it had been in recent weeks, and that the chances of Griffin suffering a more severe injury had not increased due to the first-quarter episode.
When the NFL Players Association reviewed Griffin’s case in the days after the game and decided the following Friday not to demand a formal investigation by independent doctors — as it has the right to do under the sport’s collective bargaining agreement — it concluded that Griffin never continued playing after doctors diagnosed an injury too severe for him to do so.
Shortly after leaving the observation room, Griffin was approached on the sideline by left tackle Trent Williams — like Griffin an offensive captain — who inquired about the quarterback’s condition.
“Are you sure you’re all right, bro?” said Williams, whom the NFL Network had wired for sound for the game.
“Yeah, I’m, I’m — I’m going to be safe,” Griffin replied.
“You tweaked it?” Williams pressed. “You tweaked it when you were trying to back up?”
“Yeah,” Griffin said.
“I seen that,” Williams said.
“My foot kind of went ‘wank-wank,’” Griffin explained.
“Yeah. That shock you a little bit?” Williams asked.
“Yeah, scared the [bleep] out of me,” Griffin said with a chuckle.
“All right, be smart, bro,” Williams admonished.
“I will. I will. I promise you,” Griffin said.
Meanwhile, on the opposite sideline, Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman reported his observations of Griffin to fellow cornerback Brandon Browner and inside linebacker Bobby Wagner.
Number “10 don’t wanna run that thing,” said Sherman, who also was wired for sound for the game. “Way to make him cut up earlier, because I think he hurt it.”
It is impossible to know for sure, but some people close to the situation believe the LCL tear occurred on that first-quarter rollout play. If that’s the case, his long-term fate was already sealed, since the subsequent LCL repair, even without the additional ACL revision, would mean Griffin would be facing a rehabilitation that could last deep into the summer or beyond.
“It does appear there on the play before he threw the second touchdown pass, [that] he tweaked the knee and possibly completed the LCL tear,” said Mark Adickes, the Houston-based surgeon who performed Griffin’s 2009 ACL reconstruction and who has spoken to Griffin’s family since the most recent surgery. “I think that’s what [Griffin] thinks occurred.”
But that was unknown at the time, and Griffin kept playing. Clearly, though, he was not the same. While he was 6-of-9 passing for 68 yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter, he was 4 of 10 for 16 yards, no touchdowns and one interception thereafter.
The Redskins’ coaches at least discussed the prospect of shutting Griffin down, according to backup quarterback Kirk Cousins, who said after the game he heard some of those discussions. But each time, Griffin convinced them he was okay.
“I think it’s just a tough call because the communication from Robert is that he is fine,” Cousins said. “You don’t want to sit the guy that has taken you this far when he is telling you he is fine.”
At halftime, coaches asked Griffin multiple times whether he could continue, according to someone familiar with those discussions, and each time Griffin assured them, in no uncertain terms, that he was fine.
But Griffin’s condition appeared to deteriorate throughout the second half, and at one point during the third quarter, Fox-TV play-by-play announcer Joe Buck voiced disbelief at the fact Griffin was still in the game: “At some point don’t you have to think about Kirk Cousins coming into this ballgame?” Buck also called Griffin “vulnerable. He’s not able to do what makes him great.”
On their first offensive play of the fourth quarter, the Redskins called for a quarterback keeper around the left side, and Griffin appeared to be at about half-speed as he rounded the corner – yet still gained nine yards. It would be his last positive-yardage play. Unable to push off his back leg, he threw two incompletions, ending the drive.
When the Redskins got the ball back, trailing for the first time in the game, 21-14, Griffin went back to pass on first down and was sacked by Seattle’s Bruce Irvin.
Shanahan and others in the organization have said they believe that was the play that reinjured Griffin’s ACL — although, at the time, Griffin quickly bounced up and went back to the huddle.
On the next play, second and 22 from the Redskins’ 12, with 6 minutes 25 seconds left in the game, Griffin was in the pistol formation, the backfield otherwise empty. The snap from center Will Montgomery was low and to the left, and when Griffin bent to pick it up, his knee gave way.
Williams, the left tackle, was the first to Griffin’s side, and he bent down and touched Griffin’s shoulder before motioning to the sidelines for the trainers to come attend to him. The trainers eventually got Griffin to his feet, and he brushed off attempts to help him off the field, instead walking off on his own. As he limped towards the sideline, he gave a half-hearted salute toward the crowd.
On the sideline, Griffin put his arm around Shanahan’s shoulder, and the two men spoke for a moment. Then Griffin limped around the bench, toward the back wall, and, accompanied by team trainers and Andrews, ducked back into the observation room, his rookie season over.