LANDOVER, Md.—After the Redskins' 24-14 playoff loss to the Seahawks, Washington's players and head coach talked about the "difference between being injured and being hurt," the importance of being there for your teammates, and how, in the words of Robert Griffin III, "you have to step up and be a man sometimes." This is the way the NFL talks about a player who came into the game with an injured knee, hurt it again in the first quarter, and finally left the field for good after twisting that same knee again in FedExField's chewed-up brown turf. Though Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan will surely get barraged with questions about what and when he knew about his quarterback's injuries, this litany of post-game clichés reveals why, so long as there is pro football, there will also be players jeopardizing their health as coaches stand by and let them. In the minds of the men on the field and the ones on the sidelines wearing headsets, this was not medical malpractice. It was playoff football.
Throughout his rookie season, the Redskins have alternately treated RGIII as a football player and as a science experiment. In October, the team was fined $20,000 for being slow to report that Griffin had suffered a concussion, instead saying he had been "shaken up." Griffin injured his right knee against the Ravens in December, and before Sunday's playoff game, USA Today released a report in which noted joint whisperer Dr. James Andrews contradicted Shanahan's account of the circumstances under which Griffin had briefly returned to the field against Baltimore:
Shanahan said he let Griffin return with the blessing of James Andrews, the renowned orthopedic surgeon, who was on the sideline.
Andrews, however, told USA Today Sports on Saturday that he never cleared Griffin to go back into the game, because he never even examined him.
"(Griffin) didn't even let us look at him," Andrews said. "He came off the field, walked through the sidelines, circled back through the players and took off back to the field. It wasn't our opinion.
"We didn't even get to touch him or talk to him. Scared the hell out of me."
The article goes on to explain that "Andrews remains worried about Griffin's health," and that he's "been a nervous wreck letting him come back as quick as he has." The doctor said it's the team's responsibility to ensure that its star player stayed healthy for his entire career. "He's a competitor," Andrews told USA Today. "He didn't want to let his team down."
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Team doctors, who serve at the pleasure of the franchises that employ them, usually don't contradict their employers. Andrews, the sports world's surgeon to the stars, likely spoke up because he doesn't need the Redskins to earn a living.
Even so, the most-powerful orthopedist on Earth will never win an on-field debate with a star player or coach. There is no such thing as a reasoned medical checkup during an NFL game. It's all battlefield surgery—bracing and re-taping and injecting to get wounded players back on the field. In these moments, the right choice of inspiromatic sports cliché will override most any diagnosis. You're a competitor? You don't want to let your team down? Get on out there, franchise quarterback. These are the playoffs. Be a man.
In his post-game press conference, Shanahan recounted his conversation with RGIII after the quarterback's first-quarter injury. "Robert said to me, he said, 'Coach, there's a difference between injured and being hurt. I can guarantee I'm hurting right now—give me a chance to win this football game, because I can guarantee I'm not injured.' " Shanahan then told the assembled media: "That was enough for me."
If the Redskins had held onto their early lead, this would have been a tale of heroism. As pointed out by a Pro Football Talk commentator, then Broncos coach Shanahan told Terrell Davis he should keep playing through migraine headaches in Super Bowl XXXII even though the running back couldn't see. "Just do this, you don't worry about seeing on this play because we're going to fake it to you," Shanahan said. "But if you're not in there they're not going to believe that we're going to run." Strategy trumps safety. And when the team wins, everybody's happy. On the NFL website, the send-the-blind-player-on-the-field maneuver is celebrated as an "MVP moment."
For his part, Griffin said his first-quarter injury, in which his knee buckled as he threw a pass, "scared me a little bit," and he acknowledged what everyone else in the stadium already knew: "I think I did put myself at more risk by being out there." Even so, he wouldn't have listened if his coach told him to take off his helmet. He wanted his MVP moment. "I probably would have been right back out there on the field," he said. "There was no way I was coming out of that game."
Finally, in the fourth quarter, Griffin did come out after lying on the turf for several minutes. At this point, the Redskins were losing. The season was just about over. "If you didn't pull him out then," Shanahan said after the game, "you should get fired." That was the right answer to an easy question. Earlier in the game, when it was time to make a tougher call, Shanahan didn't do it. Like RGIII said, you have to step up and be a man sometimes. Shanahan didn't step up, and he won't get fired for it. That's because these are the playoffs, and these guys are competitors. Tape an aspirin to it. Let's play.