Injured Players vs, Concerned Coaches: Who Should Get the Final Say?

Most NFL fans watched in disbelief on Sunday as the Washington Redskins, leading the Seattle Seahawks 14-0 at home after the 1st Quarter of their Wild Card Playoff Game, pissed the lead away and lost 24-14, being dominated in the final three quarters.

What dominated the headlines was Robert Griffin III staying in the game despite being visibly injured, limping after a bad fall late in the first quarter. While he did throw a TD on the following play to make it 14-0, it was obvious that the entire complexion of the game changed with his injury. Kirk Cousins started warming up in anticipation, ready to replace the dynamic QB who took the NFL by storm over the course of his rookie season.

Having watched a lot of RGIII this season, I’ve constantly asked myself: “How in God’s name do you stop this guy?” When he’s healthy, RGIII is one of the scariest players a team can face. I’ve never seen the read-option be so successful in the NFL, and RGIII deserves nothing but praise for how he executes it. I came to the conclusion after the Redskins beat the Giants 17-16 in early December that the only way you could stop him is by injuring him. Unfortunately, that’s now happened twice this season. The second time around, however, the Redskins were too slow to react and pull him out before it was too late.

I watched the game with a friend who didn’t know much about football, and when RGIII started limping, I said to him, “they gotta take him out or they’re gonna be in trouble.” My reasoning was that his athleticism was now so hampered that he’d have to be a pure pocket passer, which would play right into the hands of the Seahawks Defense. With their ferocious pass-rush and hard-hitting secondary they’ve neutralized many pocket QBs over the course of this NFL season (see: Aaron Rodgers).

Not only was RGIII neutralized, but the entire Redskins offense was neutralized, and the Seahawks got back into the game. The score was 14-13 by the end of the half, and, inevitably, the Seahawks took the lead in the 4th, and went on to win 24-14, knocking out RGIII late in the game.

Fans on social media and sports journalists were outraged at the decision of Head Coach Mike Shanahan and the Redskins’ team doctors, including the world-renowned Dr. James Andrews, for allowing him to stay in the game. When Redskins Head Coach Mike Shannahan was asked why he kept RGIII in, he claimed that RGIII told him, “there’s a difference between being injured and hurt, and I can guarantee you I’m not injured.” Shanahan trusted his player and let him stay in the game. The decision backfired, however, and, not only did the decision end the Redskins’ season, but it probably has put the health of their young franchise quarterback in jeopardy.

This has raised an interesting debate about whether or not a coach should listen to an injured player who insists he’s healthy enough to play or take the matter out of the player’s hands and sit him. This debate has been around for years in different formats, where the player is dealing with a concussion or hamstring issue or whatnot.

I’ve been thinking about it for years, and I’ve come to the conclusion that every decision when it comes to this matter is case-specific. On one hand, only the player himself knows whether or not he is healthy enough to play, and when it comes down to it, he should be the one to decide whether or not he is healthy enough to play. Every player is a competitor, and it is their natural instinct to be on the field fighting for their team at all costs, and every competitor believes that they are the best person at their position for their team and that they will do whatever is necessary to stay on that field.

However, sometimes that can take the form of hubris, and a player who claims he’s healthy when he really isn’t can harm the team and further harm himself by continuing to play. This is what happened with RGIII, and it is the responsibility of the Head Coach and team doctors to tell the player that he cannot continue if it is obvious that he is struggling and not physically capable to do what he does best. RGIII’s athleticism and running ability is a pivotal role of what makes him so tough to play against: He’s Michael Vick with a more accurate arm. By keeping him on the field, the Shanahan and the Redskins’ medical staff failed to take control of the situation and do what was best not only for the team, but for RGIII himself. The Redskins averaged less than 2 yards per play after his early injury, and failed to score the rest of the game—leaving him in hurt himself and the team. In the end, Shanahan is the head coach, and an authority figure over RGIII—he should communicate with the medical staff to make a decision for the player. Now, there’s been a discrepancy as to whether Shanahan actually consulted Dr. Andrews on RGIII’s injury (Shanahan says Dr. Andrews cleared him, while Dr. Andrews said he never examined him), but as the head coach, that accountability lies with Shanahan.

What really baffles me in this case is why didn’t the Redskins pull him when they had prepared for this scenario during the NFL Draft? They knew that RGIII was culpable to injury because of the way he played the game, and they drafted Kirk Cousins in the 4th Round to have a capable backup when RGIII did go down. It’s not often that a team would use a 4th round pick on drafting a 2nd QB, especially after mortgaging their 1st round picks for the next few years for the opportunity to move up in the draft to take RGIII. They had limited picks after the trade to draft RGIII, but took another QB with a 4th round choice anyway. They knew that all running QBs break eventually, and having a handcuff for RGIII was more important than any other position. RGIII is the franchise QB, the future of the franchise that the Redskins traded three first round picks and a second round pick to acquire, and he’s still a rookie. Yes, winning a playoff game is very important, but they had a gameplan in place for when, not if, WHEN, RGIII went down, and they deviated away from that gameplan and have potentially ruined their most important asset in the process. That is what is so baffling about the Redskins handled this.

While I’m all for RGIII continuing to play and feeling okay, Mike Shanahan and the Redskins team doctors failed him, their franchise, the fan base, and the entire city of Washington D.C. by allowing him to stay on the field. In a city where superstar Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg was controversially shut down near the end of the season to preserve his young and newly reconstructed elbow to protect his future at the cost of winning in the present, the Redskins demonstrated a reckless disregard for their player’s career, and their franchise’s future success. They not only lost the game against the Seahawks, but they risked their future as well.

Any coach or player will tell you that they’d prefer one Super Bowl win and nine years of losing as opposed to ten years of success but no championships. On Sunday night, Shanahan was going for that golden ticket by leaving RGIII in the game—a decision that was wrong for the immediate and long-term success of the Redskins.

Follow Greg on Twitter @njny

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