When Mike Shanahan came to Washington, the worry in town was that Daniel Snyder had hired an old coach looking for a money grab. The skeptics wondered that at 57, what motivation would Shanahan have? Did he really burn to win anymore?
Anyone who knew Shanahan scoffed at the thought. They spoke of a man who glowed with such a searing intensity that they shivered in his presence. They talked about a coach who longed to make the Hall of Fame. They said he believed he was one Super Bowl away. They insisted that he would do anything to stand on a podium with confetti fluttering around him, clutching a trophy, waving it aloft.
So it would be a mistake to fire Shanahan for trying to win a playoff game on Sunday afternoon. After all, this is why he was hired: to bring the division titles back. Dumping him at the moment he finally built a winner would be ridiculous.
But the fact Shanahan helped to break Robert Griffin III on Sunday speaks of a danger in the coach's zeal to win. At some point a voice of sanity had to rise above the chorus of yeses that surround Shanahan in his empire. Somebody had to wave their arms during the 24-14 NFC wild-card defeat against the Seattle Seahawks and shout: "Stop this madness" before RG3 really got hurt. Nobody did and Griffin was left to wobble on his balky knee before eventually toppling to the ground in the fourth quarter.
Reports say Griffin has a torn lateral collateral ligament and possible torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Enough isn't known to be sure if the injuries came on a pass in the first quarter when he landed awkwardly or were further damaged because he continued to play. Either way he should not have been in the game. Not after the Redskins went up 14-0 and Griffin limped off the field. The risk wasn't worth the gain.
Blame for this goes in part to Griffin who should have said something. But he is just 22 years old and is blessed – or cursed depending on how you look at it – with a belief he can break any mold. Blame, too, goes to a football culture that cherishes the old days when men spit on injuries and played through the pain. This was, of course, before 250-pound players ran the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds and quarterbacks cost three first-round draft picks and millions in salary-cap room.
Yet the biggest problem remains the culture of Shanahan in which no one questions the man wrapped in the big burgundy jacket and wearing the headset. No leader in the NFL – not Jim Harbaugh, not Bill Belichick, not Tom Coughlin – demands complete compliance the way Shanahan does. This is a trend going back to his days in Denver when he sat in his office and watched live feeds of his assistants' position meetings from a split-screen terminal. Several of those who have worked for him in the past worry about what they say lest he seek retaliation. Those who will talk of their time with him either offer gushing accolades or speak so cautiously as to reveal nothing.
Nobody wants to upset Shanahan.
At times this past year it seemed he had changed. He adapted his once-inflexible offense to fit Griffin's skills. He allowed his son and offensive coordinator, Kyle, to suggest new ways to use Griffin. He trusted Kyle to implement the new system and the result was a player so dynamic – a brilliant mix of run and pass – that there had never been anyone quite like RG3.
But at some point the hunger to win overtook common sense. Griffin was allowed to run free even as danger lurked. When disaster happened in the 340-pound form of Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, Shanahan wasn't careful enough with RG3. He let him try to finish the Baltimore game and he allowed him to play too long against Seattle. Now Griffin's knee is damaged. He may miss significant time. The quarterback, whose long-term value to the franchise was so great that it took three first-round draft picks to get him, may never be the same player. He may never have that great, galloping burst that shot him past linebackers and safeties. We may have seen his finest days as a passer and runner. The player who returns might need to be more of a pocket passer.
And yet nobody apparently told Shanahan to get Griffin off the field. Nobody dared. To work for Shanahan is to all but sign a pledge of complete acquiescence. Questions are rarely asked. Decisions are never doubted.
The only one to openly defy Shanahan has been team doctor James Andrews – a physician whose loyalties lie first with his longtime employer, Snyder, and the players themselves. It was Andrews who said, over the weekend, that he never told Shanahan it was fine for Griffin to return to the Baltimore game despite what Shanahan said. Andrews added that he was scared that day and nervous ever since that RG3 would eventually do something very bad to his knee.
Now that something bad has happened to Griffin, one has to wonder why the doctor didn't speak up on Sunday afternoon. Couldn't he see that something was clearly wrong with Griffin? Eighty thousand people and a whole country watching on TV could see a bigger injury coming. Why didn't Andrews grab Griffin's helmet and run far away?
Shanahan has said several times that Andrews cleared RG3 to play on Sunday. It's hard to imagine Andrews really believed this. Maybe he too got the frosty stare of Mike Shanahan and learned, as others before him, never to challenge the edict of the imperial coach.
It is sad how this has fallen apart. Griffin was fantastic in 2012 and Shanahan did one of his best coaching jobs in a career filled with winning seasons. Fire Shanahan? That would be absurd. But his greatest weakness has always been his omnipotence. He doesn't suffer the questioners well. And when somebody had to raise his hand and demand RG3 be pulled from Sunday's game no one did.
That might be the greatest disservice of all.
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