LANDOVER, Md. -- He should have come out of the game. It's really that simple, and it's not hindsight.
Anybody who watched Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III hobble through the second and third quarters of his team's season-ending, 24-14 playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday at FedEx Field could see that (A) he was badly hurt and (B) he was hurting his team's chances.
It's not a second guess. I sat next to John Clayton all game, and he can assure you that I was saying the same in the second quarter and the third quarter that I was saying in the fourth, when Griffin's injured right knee finally collapsed like a tower of Legos and the situation went from clear to absurdly obvious.
"If you didn't pull him out then," Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said, "then you should get fired."
Clearly, but prior to that point there were many at which Shanahan could and should have made the decision to pull Griffin and replace him with backup Kirk Cousins. He admitted after the game that the choice was difficult and that he wasn't sure even in retrospect that he'd chosen well.
"Very tough decision, and you've got to go with your gut," Shanahan said. "I'm not saying my gut is always right. I'll probably second-guess myself."
He should, because his gut was wrong. Deciding to keep Griffin in the game when he was clearly (A) injured and (B) not helping Washington move the ball was the decision that ended this Redskins season and could put part of the next one in jeopardy. Asked after the game if he thought he might have torn his right ACL -- something he did in college and therefore knows how it feels -- Griffin said, "Honestly, it's up in the air for me right now."
Griffin was defiant after the game, as he had been with Shanahan when he insisted that his coach allow him to go back in. He said that even if the fresh injury was an ACL tear, he'll simply, "come back healthy from it." But he was clearly determined to stay on his tough-guy message, not sit and think and reason about smart decisions and long-term consequences.
"I'm the quarterback of this team," Griffin said. "My job is to be out there if I can play. And to answer the next question, no, I don't feel like me being out there hurt the team in any way. I'm the best option for this team, and that's why I'm the starter."
He's a charismatic and convincing young man, and this mattered during the game when Shanahan asked him whether he could keep playing. According to Shanahan, Griffin fed him the old line about the difference between being hurt and being injured and said, "Give me the chance to win this football game because I guarantee I'm not injured."
"That was enough for me," Shanahan said.
The problems (plural) begin with the fact it wasn't true. Griffin was injured. He entered the game injured, still wearing a brace to protect against further injury from the ligament sprain he suffered four weeks earlier in Baltimore. Sunday morning, a USA Today story quoted Redskins team physician James Andrews saying he was "a nervous wreck" letting Griffin play so soon after the injury. When Griffin clearly aggravated the injury on a first-and-goal pass attempt in the first quarter Sunday, alarm bells should have been going off, and Griffin's bravado should not have been enough to silence them. Not for the coach who traded three first-round picks and a second-round pick to get him and who's charged with the care and maintenance of his long-term health.
This is easy for me to say, yes, but that's the point. I had no stake in the Redskins winning or losing Sunday's game. Shanahan did. This necessarily intensifies the difficulty of making the right decision with regard to a player's long-term health. Shanahan admitted as much, though he also insisted that, "If we felt it had something to do with Robert's career and injury, we wouldn't have left him in the game."
I say they got that wrong, and that letting your franchise quarterback stay in a hyper-intense football game on a sloppy field when he's favoring an already-injured knee is a high-level mistake. I give Shanahan credit for admitting that he may have made the wrong decision; I just believe it's clear that he did. In hindsight, for sure, and from the consequence-free comfort of the press box while it was ongoing. But the fact it was hard for Shanahan to see the right decision does not excuse him from failing to make it. He gets paid $7 million a year to make the biggest decisions for the Redskins, and he whiffed on this one.
"I wasn't lying to him. I was able to go out and play, period," Griffin said. "If he had pulled me out, I would have been highly upset, but that's his prerogative. That's his choice. But he kept me in."
I believe Shanahan will kick himself about that decision for a long time to come, and for many reasons. What's amazing is that in failing to make the correct long-term decision he also failed to make the correct short-term one. The Redskins were moving the ball as if in their wildest dreams against the Seahawks in the first quarter, rolling up 129 yards on 20 plays and racing out to a 14-0 lead. Griffin got hurt at the end of the second touchdown drive, and in the final three quarters combined the Redskins gained 74 yards on 34 plays. Regardless of what Griffin says, his inability to move inside or outside the pocket mattered. Redskins tight end Logan Paulsen admitted that "It took a few things out of the playbook."
Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said, "He wasn't able to take as many shots downfield."
There was a stadium full of people who could tell the Redskins' offense was impotent with this shell of Griffin operating it, and yet Shanahan didn't decide to go to Cousins (a guy who has shown he can win games in Griffin's place) until it finally appeared as though Griffin might not be able to get up.
"It was hard to watch RG III," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He was gallant."
No one's disputing that. It's Griffin's job to be gallant and tough and determined and all of the great things everybody was calling him after the game for his refusal to leave it. But it's Shanahan's job to make the clear-headed decision to overrule the 22-year-old superstar who wants to believe he's invincible. I do not know if Cousins would have done better against the Seahawks' defense in those final three quarters. I do feel confident in saying he couldn't have done worse. And even if he hadn't been an improvement, we wouldn't be sitting here right now thinking about how many games Griffin will have to miss in September and October if he has in fact torn his ACL.
"I can agree with you on that," Griffin said. "I think I did put myself at more risk by being out there. But every time you step on the football field, you're putting your life, your career and every single ligament in your body in jeopardy."
Inarguable. But that's why decisions like this one can't be in the hands of the player who wants to play. They need to be in the hands of the people responsible for making sure he's OK -- now and for the future. And on this day, Shanahan, a great coach who understands that responsibility, made the wrong decision. He paid for it with a season-ending loss, and he went home hoping -- but not certain -- that the bill is fully paid.