Interesting that the discussion coming out of yesterday’s NFC Wildcard game between the Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks (24-14, Seattle) revolves around ‘Skins rookie QB Robert Griffin III’s decision to start, and then stay in the game after it became apparent to anyone with working optic nerves that he wasn’t the same RG3 who so captivated the NFL and the nation’s capital this season with his combination of lightning foot speed and accurate throwing arm.
Last year’s Heisman Trophy winner out of Baylor University didn’t even need to get hit to illustrate – quite painfully in the first quarter – that his injured right knee was not only not healed, but instead fully compromised, thereby robbing him of the very skill-set that made him such a potent threat. Well, it was apparent to everyone, it seems, except Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan.
“Robert said to me, ‘Coach, there’s a difference between injuries 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.’,” Shanahan told Yahoo Sports. “That was enough for me.”
Regardless of where you come down on the “He shouldn’t have been playing or kept playing” continuum, what is also quite apparent is the vast difference in mentality between a team sport like football, where there is something beyond the self to play for – as muddled as that sometimes gets – and the sport of athletics which has reduced itself to the individual athlete representing nothing but him or herself.
Systems create realities. Thus, how many times have we heard a runner, thrower or jumper claim just the opposite of what RG3 was claiming in the lead up to a major marathon or track meet? Except for very obvious cases like Chinese high hurdler Liu Xiang, who attempted to start the 2008 Beijing Olympic 110-meter hurdles despite an injured Achilles tendon, it seems like any little twinge or niggle is enough to knock a track athlete off the start line, no questions asked. But that’s what happens in a sport where A) the money is so short, B) base compensation is tied to automatic reduction clauses in shoe contracts and year-end rankings, C) every payday has to count. Nobody goes unless they are 100%.
Athletics has designed an all-or-nothing system built around the clock, measuring tape and individual athlete. That system has consistently held fan interest as a secondary goal, at best. Again, how often have we in the media had to explain right off the bat why half the field that was announced to be competing is now not coming? Or, instead of the two big names in an event going head-to-head, we see two separate events staged at the same meet with the outcomes of place all but predetermined? The whole system is utterly counter-intuitive to building interest.
Odd, too, because American football, as punishing a game as there is, has contracts which aren’t guaranteed either. But, just look what happens if you do sit out a game with an injury in football. Ask Drew Bledsoe, the former #1 overall draft pick out of Washington State and franchise QB for the New England Patriots. He never got his starting position back after Tom Brady came in to replace him following a rib injury in the middle of the 2001 season for the Super Bowl bound Pats. Ask current S.F. 49’er QB Alex Smith who still sits on the bench after he was forced to the sidelines with a concussion and Colin Kaepernick came in to electrify the 49’er offense, even though Smith was among the league leaders in QB rating.
That’s why men like Griffin are so reluctant to give up their starting job. That’s why the NFL has created this uber-macho world view. Who knows what a subsequent MRI will show to be the extent of RG3’s knee injury? He could well have jeopardized his entire career with this one youthfully exuberant – but fully understandable – decision. His knee sure went all wobbly in the wrong direction when he attempted nothing more than to pick up that bad snap near the goal line in the fourth quarter. Of course, that’s why there are supposed to be coaches around to think long rather than short term.
Follow up medical tests will tell a huge tale going forward for 2013 -`14 season and beyond. But what the Redskins needed yesterday in order to go forward with a chance to play next weekend in the playoffs was for backup QB Kirk Cousins to get the start or the early relief call when it was obvious that Griffin was not RG3, especially since Cousins had previously proven himself an able replacement in week 15 after RG3 injured his knee the week before. Unfortunately, by the time Coach Shanahan got around to putting Cousins in to replace his hobbled teammate midway through the fourth quarter, the game was already out of reach.
This much is certain, if RG3 was still a record-setting intermediate hurdler, as he was at Copperas Cove High School and Baylor University, you can bet the farm he wouldn’t have been in the blocks yesterday.