In what has become an argument across the larger sporting world, Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III’s right knee has garnered as much attention as Stephen Strasburg’s right arm in the debate about whether he should have been shut down. This is not a new debate for Pittsburgh Steelers fans, who are accustomed to seeing Ben Roethlisberger tough out must-win games with ailments that would stagger ordinary men. The Redskins, on the other hand, haven’t had a quarterback good enough to worry about being injured since Joe Theismann, so there is a hypersensitivity surrounding the most exciting football player to come to the Nation’s Capitals this generation.
The fundamental question people are asking is whether Redskins’ head coach Mike Shanahan should have benched Griffin in the first quarter after he obviously re-injured his knee while awkwardly throwing a pass to Pierre Garcon. As Griffin has already shown this season, he is perfectly capable of playing through pain and completed a touchdown pass two plays later before taking a cheap shot from the Seahawks defense that cost them a 15-yard penalty. Some question whether Griffin should have been trying to play through an injury like that because it may affect his future, because he may never be the same player if suffers permanent damage to his already vulnerable knee.
One thing needs to be made perfectly clear, Mike Shanahan’s job is to win football games. He is paid a lot of money to do exactly that by a franchise leadership that demands excellence, by a fanbase that has suffered through long years of failure, and by a culture of ultra-competitiveness that is the epitome of manliness in modern American society, based on the television ratings for the Redskins-Cowboys Sunday Night regular season finale. No, if Griffin can play, he should be in the game, because Griffin, too, is paid to win football games. He is a young man with a bright future, but his contract for this season pays him to win football games this year, and it pays him a lot. If he were still in college, this is a very different question, but Griffin is a grown man and he understands that he risks a knee injury every time he steps on the field, second overall pick or not. Just look at what happened to KiJana Carter.
The question about Mike Shanahan’s judgment should not be about whether he ignored medical advice or put Griffin in further danger of re-injuring his knee. The Redskins groundskeeping crew is far more to blame for that than Shanahan, as Griffin’s final injury came on a play when he was not hit, instead he slipped on a very badly-kept field. No, the question should be why Mike Shanahan kept an obviously inept quarterback in the game for so long when he was obviously not producing. Why did Shanahan insist on passing the ball so much when it was the run game that got them this far in the first place?
Kirk Cousins, the rookie backup quarterback for the Washington Redskins, had already proved his mettle this season. Many questioned Shanahan’s decision to use a fourth round pick on him after taking Griffin so highly, but Cousins made huge plays for the team when it mattered this season, too. He is certainly not Griffin, but he is certainly a competent NFL quarterback. With a 14-0 lead and no signs of life from the Seattle offense after the first quarter, my first thought was that Shanahan should put Cousins in the game for the next series while Griffin was evaluated. With the game in hand, just give the ball to the running backs and make a few short passes to keep possessions alive. With that big of a lead, controlling the clock was paramount. Alfred Morris was the NFL’s second-leading rusher with 1,613 yards in the regular season. Why then, in a game the Redskins had the lead for three quarters, did he only run the ball 16 times? Yes, the run game certainly suffered when Griffin was no longer a running threat, but Morris is a bruising punishing rusher who could have eaten up yards and clock when the Redskins needed to keep their defense off the field.
In the end, Robert Griffin was almost completely ineffective after the first quarter, both as a passer and as a runner. He could not outrun defenders in the pocket or down the field, his throwing mechanics were so badly affected that he threw an interception (only his 6th on the season), and he was no longer the dynamic force the Redskins’ offense needed him to be. How exactly was he more suited to being in the game than Kirk Cousins? Cousins is healthy, he is a tall pocket passer with a strong arm and good instincts, but he also has the mobility to make plays in the run game if necessary. Cousins could have been put in at any number of junctures in the game: (1) after Griffins’s second touchdown when the game was under control (2) at halftime, after the Griffin interception, when he could have been given a chance to warm up, or (3) at any point in the second half when it became obvious that Griffin wasn’t effective. Cousins showed he could play more effectively than Griffin in the small opportunity he had at the end of the game when the Seahawks knew the Redskins were passing, his first pass of the game was for almost as many yards (15) as Griffin had in 10 attempts after his injury (16).
It was a bad coaching decision to leave Griffin in the game, but not because he was hurt. When you know your backup quarterback would do a better job, and the results bear it out, it is foolish to lose a winnable game because of it.