The internal problems of the Washington Redskins have been simmering ever since Robert Griffin III had to leave the field for the final time in last January’s playoff game with the Seattle Seahawks, with a torn ACL. The debate over how much blame–if any–head coach Mike Shanahan deserved reverberated not just through Redskins Nation, but the entire NFL fan base, and set off a summer of speculation over whether the quarterback and the coach were on the same page–or if they even trusted each other.
Now those problems have boiled over in the aftermath of last Sunday’s 24-16 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, a defeat that dropped the Redskins to 3-7 and all but ends their playoff hopes, even in the woeful NFC East. When Washington takes the field this coming Monday Night in San Francisco, they will do so after a week of more dissension (or misunderstanding, depending on who or what you believe), media fire for Griffin, and open talk about whether Shanahan will return next year.
Or put simply, President Obama isn’t the only major figure in Washington suffering from collapsing approval ratings.
What’s going to follow here is a reflection on the major events that have taken place within this organization, written from the perspective of a Redskins fan, and some definite opinions about where the team needs to go from here.
WOOED AND WON OVER BY THE ROOKIE
During this past summer, a friend, whom is not a football fan, but knew of my passion for the Redskins, asked me what I thought of RG3. This friend does share a common interest in the ABC police drama Castle, where a novelist helps the police, and in the process often spins wild theories about who may have committed the crime. My answer to her question was in that context, when I said “Think of me like Castle. I come walking into the precinct and say something like ‘I really think we need to consider the possiblity that RG3 is superhuman and immortal.'” Sane, I am not.
As a result, I have an obvious predisposition to back the quarterback, but it needs to be emphasized that the Redskins precede RG3 in my sports fan life, not vice-versa. To paraphrase Moe Greene in The Godfather, I was rooting for the Redskins when Robert Griffin III was going out with cheerleaders. Actually long before that. I’ve been a ‘Skins fan since I was a kid in the late 1970s, and there is quite literally nothing I have done in my life longer than root for the Washington Redskins.
If push comes to shove, I’m choosing the team over the quarterback, a dividing line a lot of Green Bay Packer fans became familiar with when everything blew up with Brett Favre.
Furthermore, it would completely shock most of the people familiar with my RG3 rhetoric to know that I was a harsh critic of the trade the Redskins made to move up to the #2 pick in the 2012 NFL draft and select him. Washington swapped the sixth position overall with the St. Louis Rams, and gave up two more first-rounders and a second-rounder.
My reasons had little, if anything, to do with RG3 himself. I had become a strong Griffin backer when he was at Baylor, pushing him for the Heisman Trophy at a time when Andrew Luck and Trent Richardson were seen as the clear co-favorites. I had no problem with the notion of him being the second player picked in the draft, and was open to the view of some–including Lou Holtz and Mark May on ESPN–that RG3 should even go first.
The problem I had was that I’ve seen too many can’t-miss quarterbacks come up short. The teams in position to draft them, by definition, have huge holes throughout the roster and the Redskins were no different. What happens is that these rookie quarterbacks get thrust into situations where they have to carry a team, and even if they’re pretty good, they still fall short of expectations and aren’t worth what’s invested. That was my fear with RG3, not to mention that his style of play made it prudent to assume he would miss 3-4 games a year.
In the end, I think very few quarterbacks really carry their teams, and very few really damage their teams. The only way RG3 was going to be worth the price the ‘Skins paid was to be in the former group–even having a solid Pro Bowl career wasn’t going to be sufficient and I felt this was a burden you don’t put on any rookie. If Washington would have simply had the #2 pick in the draft, I was all for taking him. But not to trade up, and certainly not at that price.
Then came the season of 2012.
It took me about one drive into RG3’s NFL debut in New Orleans to become a believer, as he rifled bullet passes all over the field and led a 40-32 win over the Saints. It was a win in Tampa Bay that upgraded him even further. In a tie game, leading late drive, RG3 had scrambled out of the pocket, picked up about 15 yards and looked ready to go out of bounds near the Tampa 40. Suddenly he cut back to the middle of the field, threw his body out there and picked up several more yards, setting up a game-winning field goal.
When the field goal to win the game went through, I was near tears. We not only had a quarterback, we had someone who would do nearly anything to win a football game. At this point, to say I was a believer understates the case. At this point, I made a smitten 16-year-old girl look rational by comparison.
You know the rest of the story. Washington wins seven in a row to win the NFC East–as expected, RG3 misses a couple games with injury and Kirk Couisins does a great job stepping in. Alfred Morris, the rookie running back starts looking the toughest Redskin runner since John Riggins. The ability Shanahan showed to develop a running game in Denver is bearing fruit in Washington and seems an ideal complement for the new weapon at quarterback.
Even the defense actually implements some tackling as a part of its gameplan and the season ends the sweetest way possible–a prime-time win over Dallas in a winner-take-all game. Regardless of what happened in the playoffs, it was set to be a successful season.
THE PLAYOFF CATASTROPHE
The loss to the Seahawks was not the catastrophe. Seattle was favored coming into the game, and only the fact Washington was the home team provided any reason to think it would end otherwise. But when RG3 led a pair of early touchdown drives for a 14-0 lead, it looked like an upset might be in the works. Instead, a play that happened early in the game–when he was tackled near the sidelines and his injured leg seemed to literally fall limp proved to be an ominous foreshadowing.
The fact the quarterback was injured was obvious to all watching the game. As it unfolded, I was clear on two things–that I would have taken him out and put Couisins in. The Redskins had the lead, and it was a good time to put the backup in, when he could still manage the game. A replay of Griffin running out of bounds, his face grimacing in obvious pain, made it clear to everyone watching that he simply couldn’t go on.
But I was also clear that while I think Shanahan erred, I didn’t think it was a terrible decision. Players carry on while injured in big situations all the time. From Willis Reed taking the floor hobbled in the 1970 NBA Finals, to Curt Schilling’s bloody sock in the 2004 American League Championship Series, we lionize the players who go out in pain. On the flip side, Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has never lived down leaving the 2010 NFC Championship Game at halftime.
Unless you wait until after the fact to second-guess (I know, the media would never do that), you can’t rip a coach for letting a player carry on, when we celebrate that very virtue. Perhaps our celebration of this is misguided, but that’s a separate topic unto itself and it’s not the world that Shanahan and RG3 live in.
Therefore, while I think Shanahan was wrong, I think it was a misdemeanor not a felony–albeit a misdemeanor that would have felony-esque consequences when RG3 finally tore his ACL on an ugly looking play, where his leg again fell limp and he literally collapsed.
MISHANDLING THE AFTERMATH
It’s the aftermath of this injury and the debate over who was at fault that Shanahan began to lose points with me. The head coach stated that Griffin hadn’t said he was hurt. First off, we’ve already established that the entire nation knew the quarterback was hurt. If the head coach didn’t know, it begs the question of what football game he was watching.
Furthermore, since when does a veteran head coach with two Super Bowl rings–more than enough cache to make a decision and live with it–shift blame to a rookie quarterback. The culture of the NFL–not just the media, but players themselves–is biased against those who ask out of a game. It’s the responsibility of the head coach to take the heat off the player and make the correct decision.
Shanahan’s lack of accountability was, at least to me, far more egregious than the decision itself. All he needed to do was say that he pushed too hard to win an NFL playoff game, took responsibility and then moved on. I don’t know if it would have ended the criticism, but it would have with me, and it surely would have at least lessened it nationally.
BATTLE LINES GET DRAWN
What the head coach’s blame-shifting did do was create a climate of mistrust that hadn’t appeared to exist prior to this point. Griffin’s father was openly critical of his son’s coach. Both of the Griffin parents serve their country in the military and it seems safe to presume they aren’t predisposed to questioning authority figures. The fact RG-2 would not only do so, but go public, tells you the mistrust had to be severe. And while I don’t support the action itself–public criticism of the head coach–I get completely why the Griffin family and camp felt the way they did.
The Shanahan-Griffin rift became a topic de jour on a sports talk–with shows like First Take missing Tim Tebow and Favre, the Redskin problems filled a needed vacuum, and those problems also got play on non-soap opera shows like Pardon The Interruption.
There was hope–as pointed out by Michael Wilbon on PTI–that this would just be akin to the early rift faced by Joe Theismann and Joe Gibbs when the latter became head coach in 1981. They worked it out and won two NFC titles and one Super Bowl. But those of us who love the Redskins had to at least think about what side we came down on if things went bad.
For me, the answer to that question was easy. Shanahan took over the Redskins prior to the 2010 season, and in the first two years there was zero sign of progress. I didn’t blame the coach as much as I took it as another indictment of Daniel Snyder’s reign–that the Redskins were simply a dysfunctional operation under which not even a Super Bowl-winning coach could succeed.
Robert Griffin III arrived and proved that, unlike his coach, he could transcend the Snyder dysfunction. There was no question where the dividing line between twenty years of failure and the 2012 NFC East title run fell, and it was with RG3. Choosing between the team and quarterback wasn’t necessary–the two were aligned.
A LOST SEASON
The Washington Redskins have spent the 2013 season looking like a poorly coached football team. The tackling is atrocious. The special teams are worse. The play-calling often gets overly vanilla, the clock management dubious at best. And the lack of accountability reverberates through the organization.
The fact Mike Shanahan continues to have his son Kyle serve as the offensive coordinator is insulting, and a big reason I’m ready to move on. In hiring his son, the head coach is all but telling the world that Kyle’s career advancement is more important than the success of the Washington Redskins. The familial loyalty is great–but just write him a letter of recommendation somewhere else, or have him by a position coach.
This kind of hire is taken by me as an indication that Mike Shananhan is no longer the driven head coach who pushed the Denver Broncos and an aging John Elway over the hump to championships in 1997 and 1998. It holds the Washington Redskins hostage–you can’t make an offensive coordinator change without firing the head coach. It’s nepotism and suggests that Shanahan thinks he’s above the standards that apply to every other coach.
The aftermath of the Philadelphia game brought up some accountability issues with RG3 and I think they’re fair. The quarterback said that it seemed the Eagles knew which plays were coming. He later went on to say it was an attempt to praise the Philadelphia defense–and his own team’s veteran linebacker London Fletcher said similar words, as did the Eagle players. But it was taken as a criticism of the Redskin coaches–notably Kyle–and while it may not have been accurate, I don’t blame the media. That’s how I took the words too.
Let’s say for a moment that RG3 intended his words to be critical of the coaches. It’s nothing I haven’t shouted at my TV set countless times over ten games, but this was not the time nor the place to say it. Griffin had not played a good game, had made a bad decision on the game’s final play, and the only correct answer was to simply say “I didn’t get it done.”
Wide receiver Santana Moss said as much earlier this week on a local radio show. Moss, along with Fletcher, are two Redskin players I consider pretty much above reproach. Neither one has ever been a great player, but they’re both veterans who have always been good, at least good enough to start on playoff teams. The fact they’ve labored so hard for so many bad teams should earn them the loyalty of Redskin fans.
Furthermore, Moss was right. I didn’t blame RG3 for the loss–he didn’t play well, but he came up with some big plays, and the entire team looked in the tank for 3 1/2 quarters. But the quarterback gets the glory and the endorsements, and it’s entirely reasonable for the other players to want that same player to just bite his tounge in the press conference and say “We lost because I didn’t get the job done.”
It doesn’t mean thinking fans have to believe it’s true, but it defuses any media storyline and lets everyone focus on the job at hand. RG3 has been asked to shoulder a lot of burdens–both on the field and off, for a weak team that has a rabid fan base, and I can easily cut slack and say this indiscretion–and the correct rebuke issued by Moss– is part of the learning process. But learn from it he must.
Where do the Washington Redskins go from here? I’ll begin by saying I want to see some of what I saw in the fourth quarter against Philadelphia. Even though the attempt to rally from a 24-zip deficit fell short and RG3 made a bad decision, watching this team–and its quarterback–keep competing when all hope seemed lost was one of the few times this year, I felt some real pride in watching them play. I want to see that the rest of the way, regardless of what the final record looks like.
I have few, if any concerns, about RG3’s performance. If you watch this team play–and I’ve watched every snap of every game and have all the emotional scars to prove it–it’s obvious he, along with Morris, are the only bright spots this team has. If you throw out the first two games–which I think is fair, since it was obvious RG3 couldn’t yet plant his foot to throw–the only truly poor game he’s played was at Denver.
Even the problems in the Philadelphia game were due as much to the fact the Eagles collapsed the pocket immediately on most every pass, and balls had to be repeatedly thrown away because no one got open. And yet in spite of that, when the Redskins got the ball on their own 3-yard line with 3:26 to go and trailing by eight points, I had complete confidence that RG3 was at least going to get us in position to take a shot and win the game.
If I might criss-cross sports, ESPN’s Bill Simmons once wrote in his Book Of Basketball, and other times in his columns, that a mark of a great player is when the fans are completely convinced that he’s about to deliver in spite of an entire game that suggests otherwise. Elway had that ability like no other NFL quarterback I have seen. RG3’s got the same potential–two weeks in a row he’s led long, late drives aimed at tying a game. The one in Minnesota should have succeeded, if not for a dropped pass in the end zone. The one in Philly came closer than rational analysis would have suggested.
What’s more, Griffin is doing this in a year where he’s recovering from his injury, and plays on a team where the poor defense and special teams make it almost mandatory to score each time he has the ball. He’s made more mistakes than at any point of his career, but when you play in this context, you have to take too many chances.
This is also an area where Griffin’s competitiveness and stubborness work against him. He’s got to get that channeled to eat the football a little more, the fateful final play in Philadelphia being Exhibit A.
But at the end of the day, I’ll stand on this–none of the young quarterbacks with whom RG3 is bracketed–Luck, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick–would be having any more success with this Redskin team. The other three play on real teams, that do a lot of things well, and they can pick their spots and have teammates who can pick them up if they make a mistake. Griffin lacks all of that. And note that all of this is true, even apart from the issue of recovering from injury.
Shanahan is different. It’s time to move on. I give him credit for building the running game with Morris–the Redskins lead the NFL in yards-per-rush–but every other problem with this team can be traced to bad decisions from the head coach.
We can also add in the fact he allows free safety Brandon Meriweather, the dirtiest player in the league to hurt the team weekly with helmet-to-helmet hits that come without consequence from the team. Maybe Shanahan feels Meriweather makes up for his penalties with all his missed tackles.
Washington can go one of two directions for its next head coach. The short-term answer is hire Lovie Smith. The former Chicago Bears coach can get at least clean up the defense and fundamentals and get this team competitive again. Whether you can win a Super Bowl with Lovie is a fair question, but when you’re 3-7 and have been irrelevant for the better part of two decades, let’s not get the cart before the horse.
The other possibility is go into the college ranks and hire someone familiar with the read-option. Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M is one possibility. Another one is even more intriguing–Art Briles from Baylor. The connection to RG3 is apparent, and this year’s improved Baylor defense show that Briles knows what he’s doing on that side of the ball.
Either way, the Redskins have to look to the future. Get a coach who can link up with RG3 and let them grow together. I’m perfectly comfortable with putting the fate of the franchise in this quarterback’s hands. And even if I’m not, that investment and decision has already been made. The next coaching hire needs to reflect that.