I knew this would be a controversy as soon as the Redskins offense ran out of gas in the second quarter of yesterday’s NFC wildcard game yesterday, even before starting QB Robert Griffin III hobbled off the field late in the game.  Never mind that RGIII’s backup, Kirk Cousins, proved just as ineffective in the fourth quarter yesterday.  The sharp knives are out for Mike Shanahan for allowing —gasp — his star player to aggravate an injury by playing in the first place:

Robert Griffin III reached too far for the football, his already injured right leg twisting gruesomely behind him.

Just like that, Griffin was done. And so were the Washington Redskins.

Actually, they were done after the first quarter.  Washington couldn’t move the ball after scoring two quick TDs, which is in part the argument that Mike Freeman makes:

Late in the game, Griffin’s knee turned awkwardly (again). This time it was as if you could see the ligaments and joints crunching and twisting in real time, the way Earth and buildings shift during a tremor. It was a shock this hadn’t happened before that moment. The medical staff removed Griffin and he was out of the game.

This is one of those instances when a play, a moment, eclipses the contest, even a playoff game like this one. This dilemma has plagued coaches, and the sport, since football’s birth. How long do you allow an injured, tough player to be, well, injured and tough, before protecting that player from himself?

This was an easy test to pass yet Shanahan failed miserably. Washington lost to Seattle, 24-14, for one reason and one reason only: the complete mismanagement of Griffin by Shanahan. Griffin should have been benched at halftime (at the latest), and the fact Shanahan didn’t do it was terrible judgment.

Actually, though, the medical staff cleared RGIII to stay in the game after that first awkward fall.  Shanahan sent him back into the game — RGIII later said he would have been “highly upset” had he been benched at that point — but the Redskins offense never threatened in the game after that:

The medical staff looked at Griffin when the Redskins were leading 14-0 and cleared him to play but this isn’t necessarily about medical issues. It’s about effectiveness issues. Coaches are paid to make these kinds of decisions for the betterment of the team and Shanahan didn’t make the right one.

There was proof at almost every part of the game that Griffin shouldn’t have been on the field. On one deep pass that right knee clearly had difficulty generating stability and power on a deep ball that was intercepted (despite Griffin saying it didn’t). The football floated lightly into the sky with no power as if it was thrown by Mark Sanchez in a tropical storm.

One of the game’s mighty arms had been weakened by an injured wheel. One of the league’s Supermen had become ordinary. On a run in the fourth quarter, going to his left, Griffin ran like a pregnant yak.

I’ll spare you further analogical atrocities.  Freeman isn’t wrong here; Griffin was ineffective.  However, let’s take a brief inventory of the counterfactual.  Let’s say Shanahan overruled his medical staff and benched RGIII after the first quarter and played Kirk Cousins.  Cousins played in the final few minutes and was … terrible, despite having prepared all week to go into this key game.  He went 3-10 in passing for 31 yards, for a QB rating of 2.1 with the season on the line.  The Seattle defense was clearly better suited to defend against Cousins, who did win two games for Washington when RGIII was out with the original knee injury.  Had they made the switch earlier in the game, when Washington had the lead, he could have handed off more to Alfred Morris, who had a decent day — but RGIII was doing that, too, and drives were going nowhere as Seattle keyed in on the rush. And let’s not forget that the fumble that drove RGIII out of the game and gave Seattle a field goal was a bad snap, not a fumble caused by the injury, the second such bad snap of the game.

And if that had happened, with a visibly upset RGIII on the sidelines and Cousins losing the lead, what would these sportswriters be writing about Shanahan today?  I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have been complimentary.

In the end, a coach has to deal with plenty of second-guessing, so this is fair game for Shanahan.  But those who are pointing fingers seem somewhat oblivious to the fact that any number of players take the field each game at less than 100% health, especially in the playoffs. They do so because of their own competitive natures, and because the stakes are high. Maybe QBs are just more visible, but I don’t see anywhere near this kind of scolding over decisions to play others with existing injuries who nonetheless get medical clearance to play. Pierre Garcon and London Fletcher both had injuries during the week, for instance, and played in the game, and Cousins was just coming off a case of the flu.

There was reason for hope for Griffin, too. While it’s clear that RGIII aggravated the knee injury, he didn’t leave the field, and stuck around long enough to walk around the field and greet Seahawks players after the final gun. If the medical staff was worried about a significant new injury to the knee, RGIII would have been in the locker room long before, or on crutches.  Hopefully the in-game injury was not any more serious than the already-extant underlying issue, and we can see Griffin return to full capability over the off-season.

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