Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
Robert Griffin III was supposed to be the face of a new era for the Redskins. Sunday, Mike Shanahan became the face of everything that's been wrong with this franchise all along.
I feel guilty about this, but there was something cathartic watching the Redskins dream season go up in flames Sunday night. Watching RGIII twist and hobble his way around the pocket was miserable, obviously. Even before he crumbled on the field in the fourth quarter on what was easily the saddest play of the season, it was all pretty awful and borderline unwatchable. But it was cathartic because Mike Shanahan and Kyle Shanahan have been flirting with this exact disaster all season, cultivating their own myth while jeopardizing RG3's. That Seahawks game was just the epitome of everything that's been shortsighted about the Shanahan approach all along.
A few weeks ago Sally Jenkins wrote "Mike Shanahan Can Coach Football -- Who Knew?", offering a standing ovation in the Washington Post:
Shanahan likes to play the clipped, monosyllabic bore in front of the media. His main quality appears to be a hard head, topped by a helmet of hair that looks like steel filaments. But there is a more intriguing Shanahan in there somewhere, or at least an edgier one, a gambler who keeps his cards close. He has a daredevil streak: In the offseason he likes to go to the Caribbean to bungee-jump and parasail. Once, he dove off a 60-foot cliff into the ocean. He also makes annual trips to Vegas for high-stakes poker. If you think about it, much of what Shanahan has done with the Redskins is all about risk management.
Sunday, Shanahan was gambling that the threat of RGIII was worth keeping him on the field even if he couldn't run, couldn't plant in the pocket, and was obviously risking further injury on top of everything. Look at this secret daredevil pushing the limits, did you know he plays high stakes poker in the offseason? It's all about risk management, if you think about it.
"I think I did put myself at more risk by being out there," RGIII said afterward. "But every time you step in between those lines on that football field you're putting your life, your career, you know, every single ligament in your body in jeopardy."
Good God, that's depressing. It was all depressing.
Watching RGIII twisting in pain for two hours was even worse because we all remember what he looks like healthy. "When he runs it doesn't even look like he's trying and he's still three steps faster than the fastest guys on the field ... Everyone else was running on ice and he was just calmly skating past them, and the whole thing just looked like a reflex." That was in October.
On Sunday there was a run in the fourth quarter where RGIII wobbled to the wide sideline for nine yards and looked like he could barely walk. As RGIII described it, "Mike asked me to try and see if I could run, so I did, and I got nine yards. I think that's a positive in anybody's playbook."
The most soul-crushing "positive" of the season, yes.
There are other elements to all this that are very, very Redskins. The quotes from Dr. James Andrews Sunday morning, who said he's uncomfortable watching RGIII play with the current injury and alleges that the Redskins lied about the way they handled RGIII's injury when it first happened against the Ravens. (Only the Redskins could hire the most famous surgeon in the history of sports and then disregard his misgivings.) The field, which has been horribly maintained for months and couldn't have helped anything Sunday. And the general approach to everything: Defending themselves against criticism by offering vague explanations and, in Sunday's Mike Shanahan press conference, indirectly shifting accountability to RGIII for clouding his judgment.
As Shanahan said, "Robert said to me, 'Coach, there's a difference between injured and being hurt. I can guarantee I'm hurting right now, give me a chance to win this football game because I guarantee I'm not injured.' That was enough for me." Okay then!
"That's just the approach I had to take," RGIII added later. "My teammates needed me out there for 'em, so I was out there for 'em." It's the coach's job to weigh the future against the present, though. Any player who does this himself would be crucified for it in the locker room and media alike, and RGIII is perfect in every way, so of course he didn't make that mistake. But that's where it helps to have a coach to prevail with perspective.
Obviously that didn't happen, RGIII got hurt, and everyone's blaming Shanahan today. In his defense: It was the heat of the moment, RGIII said he could play, and hindsight makes all these decisions look easy. Besides, the Redskins had been winning with RGIII playing on one leg for the past month, risking his ligaments every week. Why would they change course in the most important game of the season?
That's where it's fair to blame Shanahan. The sports cliche that's applicable to Sunday is that the coach was "trusting the guy who got him there". Really though, Shanahan was trusting the strategy that got him there. Put the ball in RGIII's hands to scare the defense, embrace the risks, and wait for RGIII to deliver. It worked better than anyone could have imagined this year, but that's the thing. It always should have been about more than this year for the Redskins.
RGIII on Sunday was like watching that playoff game in Any Given Sunday where Cap Rooney's playing in the final game of his career. The one where he can barely walk and they play that Bill Withers song and it's all supposed to be awesome.
RGIII was 22 years old playing the first playoff game of his career this week. It makes the Bill Withers song a lot more depressing.
Everyone loves the NFL mythology about playing hurt and leaving it all on the line in battle--RGIII loves it too, apparently--but this was stupid. The Redskins approach to RGIII was always pretty stupid.
For months 'Skins fans have defended the Shanahan offense by saying that all the designed runs helped keep defenses honest and set up the pass. That was true, and it worked. Also true: If it made the Skins offense more dangerous this season, it was still insane. Setting up the passing game in 2012, jeopardizing the passing game over the next 10 years.
RGIII said earlier this year he sees himself as the next Aaron Rodgers, not Cam Newton. Imagine the Packers running 7 or 8 designed runs for Aaron Rodgers every week, or leaving him exposed on a bunch of gimmicky option pitches. All of this insanity became clear Sunday night, and it actually made perfect sense.
Years of mortgaging future draft picks for short term solutions, spending insane amounts of money to win now, making desperate moves in ten different ways--RGIII single-handedly made everyone forget everything. I'm not even a Redskins fan, but I've lived in this city my entire life and seen the dysfunction every year. Except this year, when Redskins games somehow became the best thing about the NFL.
Then Sunday we saw the bigger picture again: 1) This is the team traded a bunch of first round picks for a superstar, just like always. 2) The superstar was every bit as good as advertised, so 3) they installed an offense to help them win now even if it meant risking his health for the long term, 4) hired the world's foremost sports surgeon and probably ignored his advice, and 5) ultimately saw it all go up in flames in the worst way possible. It was cathartic seeing Shanahan's shortsighted arrogance crystallized on national television. But also pretty awful, because he's definitely coming back.
Now we're waiting for an MRI to see whether RGIII's knee is okay after that clusterfuck on Sunday. If it is, do you have any faith that the Redskins learned their lesson?