During the NFC Wild Card Playoff Game at FedExField on January 6, 2013 in Landover, Maryland.
On Sunday, the Washington Redskins lost a playoff game to Seattle, 24-14. Very soon, they will find out if they have lost a quarterback, Robert Griffin III, and, if so, to what new injury to his right knee and for how long. It could be not much. It could be a great deal. And so could the repercussions.
Hold your breath. But understand that, from Griffin’s first play to his last, this game epitomizes the emergency-room world of NFL mayhem that all players accept and that quarterbacks, as team leaders, must play by a carry-me-off-on-my-shield code.
Only one person usually says, “Enough” to a star quarterback who wants to continue: the coach. And in close playoff games, they seldom do.
But rarely is that quarterback 22 years old, the face of the franchise and relentlessly driven to prove his courage. If ever a veteran coach needed to accept responsibility for the reins of a player, it was Shanahan over Griffin in this game. Yet he simply passed the buck to his player. Griffin said he could play, was in pain but wasn’t injured and had earned the right to be the quarterback — all the sideline buzzwords to keep yourself in the game. And Shanahan listened and bought it. Soon, we’ll find out the price.
Griffin entered the game recovering from one month-old knee injury, playing in a big brace. Before the end of the first quarter, he had reinjured it and, in the process, lost almost all of his mobility and become completely ineffective. The Redskins led 14-0 when he hurt himself. Griffin passed for just 25 yards the rest of the day.
Then, still in the game in the fourth quarter with the Redskins trailing 21-14, Griffin collapsed in a gruesome heap near the Redskins goal line while merely trying to bend over to pick up his own fumble. He lay there for several minutes. Replays showed his knee twisting in grotesque directions.
Then he eventually walked gingerly off the field and even walked to a lectern afterward to answer questions. After you’ve watched knee injuries for decades, this often means one of two things: Griffin’s dodged a bullet, thanks to his amazing strength, flexibility and some luck. Or the MRI exam will tell a very different truth.
If Griffin is basically okay, all of this probably will blow over, everyone will congratulate RGIII on his play-with-pain courage and Shanahan, in the future, might say he needs to factor RGIII’s extreme “stubbornness and competitiveness” into his decisions on whether to let him stay in games.
If Griffin has a major injury, even if he is entirely able to recover from, then the sight of Griffin staggering through this game like a defenseless one-legged man, and the playoff-blood-pact between coach and quarterback may go down as one of the sport’s most remarkably stupid macho decisions.
So, the stakes aren’t too high. Sports is a strange world where everybody agrees to rewrite history after the MRI comes back.
Few, except those who have actually played in the NFL, have any idea of the pain, the danger, the level of semi-injury and risk of disability that runs through the sport at every instant. Fairly recent studies of concussions are just improving the focus on a huge range of brutalities. What the rest of us would consider a nightmare is the NFL’s normal. What we see as almost insane, they view as necessary, perhaps not much more than the minimum requirement.
And for the quarterback, the position of leadership, no quality is more important than simple homely physical courage.
This is the game that we, as a nation, have chosen. So when Griffin lies in a heap, unable to move, playing hurt — perhaps playing injured and not knowing it — and you hold your breath or curse the coach for endangering him, just remember: War is hell and nothing else is close, but the NFL may be the closest legal form.
“Robert will have the MRI,” Shanahan said. “It’s a very tough decision. You have to go with your gut . . . and I did. I’m not saying my gut is always right. . . . As I get to know Robert better as time goes on, I’ll know how stubborn he is.
“I’ll probably second-guess myself when you take a look at,” Shanahan said, becoming vague, perhaps recalling RGIII in a heap. “In the second half, should you have done it earlier? You always do that, especially after you don’t win.”
Griffin took all responsibility of his shoulders, whether it belonged there or not.
“I’m the quarterback of this team,” Griffin said afterward. “I don’t think I hurt the team in any way.
“I hurt my knee [in the first quarter] when I planted wrong. My knee buckled. It scared me a little. We did a tape job. After that, it was fine until the end of the game.”
Oh, the end of the game — who will forget that? With the Redskins trailing 21-14, RGIII came back in the game one last time for a drive to try to tie the score. Then a low snap rolled away from him.
Griffin just wanted to bend over, flex his right knee as he had a million times in his life, and pick up the bobbled snap as it lay loose at the Redskins 5-yard line. The football lay at his feet. Anyone could do it. Just spin, scoop, then figure out what happens next.
But that was a deed 100 times more difficult than Griffin could manage. His head, heart and ferocious football will wanted to recover that fumble more than anything in the world. What was left of his unstable right knee refused to permit it. That, more than anything, shows how vulnerable his knee already was: He was injured without contact.
The Redskins, Shanahan and their medical experts, including famed orthopedic surgeon James Andrews who was on the sideline, will have to answer for themselves why this game — and the code of the NFL, the code of all high-level football really — dictated that the most important Redskins player in decades take such risks.
“Your life, your career, every ligament in your body is in jeopardy” on every play, Griffin said.
So, that’s just the game, the reality, a core competency of a playoff quarterback?
“We’ll find out what it is” in the knee, Griffin said. “Whatever it is, I’ll make sure I come back next year.”
Someday there may be a statue of Griffin outside FedEx Field. But not if the Redskins keep letting him play when he is one.