Time after time, from pitch counts to innings limits to conservative recovery schedules from injury to a voluntary mid-pennant-race shutdown last year that was criticized coast-to-coast, the Washington Nationals chose to develop Strasburg for the long haul, even though he could be a free agent after the 2016 season. That’s consistent with patient franchise philosophy.
From their option-style offense, to bringing RGIII back in a brace after a knee injury for an NFC East run, to sending him on the field six more times Sunday after he had re-injured the knee in the first quarter, the Washington Redskins chose to maximize Griffin for quick impact, restoration of franchise glory and short-term results. They have sought these instant rewards even though NFL contract rules make it easier for teams to keep players they want for their entire careers. That is consistent with the franchise’s hurry-up history.
Development of Strasburg in the face of huge industry criticism versus exploitation of RGIII, accompanied by “Hail to the Redskins,” is the pattern.
Neither course of action guarantees success. But the Nats have done what they thought was wisest, or medically indicated, to give Strasburg the best chance for a great long career and the Nats a chance to benefit from it. In chilling contrast, the Redskins have maximized or ignored risks to RGIII.
In the most vivid example, both Strasburg and Griffin faced classic macho-code decisions on whether or not to “tough it out” for their team in a long-shot run for a World Series or Super Bowl. Both wanted to play and neither could have said “No” without crushing their own reputations in their games.
So, Nats General Manager Mike Rizzo said “No” for Strasburg. Then he took as much criticism as any executive in a generation. He had dared to disagree with industry think and not apologize. On Sunday, Griffin couldn’t ask out and still retain his credibility as team captain; he needed Coach Mike Shanahan, as adult and coach, to say “No” for him. Shanahan didn’t.
Now, Strasburg plans to report to spring training in less than five weeks for his first full season with what doctors consider a completely fit arm. On Wednesday, Griffin was in surgery for a total reconstruction of his right knee to repair his torn anterior cruciate ligament and lateral collateral ligament. He had similar reconstruction on the same knee at Baylor in ’09. Yet at this moment, there may not be a hotter topic in Redskins Nation than, “Can he get back in time for the season opener?”
Rizzo and Shanahan are two of the sharpest observers of detail in their sports — Rizzo as a third-generation scout and Shanahan as a student of football offense, particularly every aspect of quarterback play.
Both live by their eye. They know what to look for and trust what they see. What others miss doesn’t escape them. In recent months, both faced an ethical crisis. What their eyes saw, or should have seen, was obvious. Would they have the wisdom as team-builders, the moral courage as leaders or perhaps just the decency as men, to act on it? One did. One didn’t.
The Nats set an innings limit for Strasburg as part of a long-in-place best-medical-practices protocol for pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery. But Rizzo could have finagled his own model, used for Jordan Zimmermann in ’11. Skip starts, fake a disabled list trip, to get Strasburg starts in October. Instead, he kept Strasburg “on turn” as the safest method and said he would shut him down when he “doesn’t pass the eye test — my eye.”
After Strasburg pitched at Arizona on Aug. 10, I called Rizzo and asked, “How did he look to you?” Rizzo went off: He couldn’t command any of his pitches; he muscled the ball and fell off the mound; he showed every symptom of fatigue in a pitcher at his stage of TJ recovery. Strasburg might have some sharp games left in him, but “the danger area is coming” either for a ’12 injury or, more likely, damage that would show up in ’13.
Yet Strasburg had just allowed one hit and one run in six innings on raw, though wild, stuff. “But I know what I see,” Rizzo said.
Two starts later, Strasburg fanned 10. Two starts after that, in early September, he shut out St. Louis on two hits for six innings and fanned nine. But in four of his last 10 starts, he allowed 22 runs in 17 innings.
Finally, Davey Johnson, who had privately had doubts about the Strasburg shutdown but publicly backed the GM, saw what Rizzo had spotted. With little more than a nod, they decided to shut down Strasburg even sooner than they’d expected. They didn’t like what their lifetime-eyes saw.
On Sunday, Shanahan faced the most difficult Eye Test of his career and for almost identical stakes: the future of a performer so talented that he might not only be the face of a franchise but eventually the face of an entire sport. Rizzo watched for months. Shanahan had three hours, on the fly.
But it should have been enough. With each of those six series, RGIII’s play degraded dramatically. Watch a replay: not too bad at first, but defenseless by late in the third quarter. You can almost hear the chambers of this game of coaching Russian roulette as they click.
The cases of Strasburg and Griffin will inevitably be linked. Some will point out the many differences. But it is the parallel problems and radically different responses by the Nationals and Redskins — in team-building philosophy, in treatment of people as well as preservation of assets and, finally, in basic ethical behavior — that will continue to resonate for years.
No one knows the sum of either star’s career. The odds still favor them both. But one answer is in: We know which young man was treated as we would wish for a family member and which was exploited to the point of abuse.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/