Rarely in the annals of the NFL has a rookie season that began with such promise and contained as much success ended in such a disappointing and potentially horrific fashion as the way in which Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin's first year in the National Football League concluded in the Wild Card Round.
Despite leading the Redskins on two drives that ended in touchdown passes to open their wild-card playoff matchup with the Seattle Seahawks, the balky knee that had limited Griffin since he injured it in December against the Baltimore Ravens continued to worsen.
By the fourth quarter, a hobbled Griffin had gained less than 100 total yards and the Redskins trailed, and then catastrophe struck.
However, before we relive Sunday's events it's important to go back and examine how we got to this spot in the first place.
The Start of a New Era in Washington
The Washington Redskins were determined heading into the 2012 draft that they would acquire a franchise quarterback of the future, and the team paid a very high price to do so. Prior to the draft, the Redskins made a blockbuster trade, sending their first-round picks in 2012, 2013 and 2014, as well as their second-round pick in 2012, to the St. Louis Rams in exchange for the Rams' second overall pick.
When the Indianapolis Colts made quarterback Andrew Luck of Stanford the first player taken in the 2012 draft, Washington's decision was made, and the team selected Baylor signal-caller and 2011 Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin second overall.
At the time, head coach Mike Shanahan (whose decision making will figure prominently in this article) was optimistic both about Griffin's NFL prospects and his chances of making an impact right away, according to Mark Maske of The Washington Post:
"He wants to be the guy," Shanahan added. "He’s going to do everything he possibly can to be successful. You don’t have to be around him very long to figure that out."
Little did we know how right Shanahan would be.
A Stellar Debut
It didn't take long for Griffin to serve notice to the National Football League that his learning curve as an NFL quarterback basically consisted of him putting on his helmet and taking the field.
In his NFL debut, the 22-year-old Griffin and the Redskins traveled to the Superdome to face the New Orleans Saints in a game that many thought would serve as a rude awakening for the rookie.
Instead, it was the Saints that were in for a rude awakening, as Griffin threw for 320 yards and ran for 32 more in a 40-32 Washington victory that teammate Ryan Kerrigan said was a sign of things to come, according to Don Banks of Sports Illustrated:
"I thought [Griffin] played great and [had an] awesome performance," Redskins outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said. "He lived up to all the hype. He's as good as advertised. I mean, how many great plays did he make out there?"
The First Sign of Trouble
However, it wasn't long before Griffin's running style and willingness to sacrifice his body to gain extra yardage (which is reminiscent of a young Michael Vick) got him in trouble.
In the third quarter of an October 7 matchup with the Atlanta Falcons, on 3rd-and-goal from the 5-yard line, Griffin took a wicked hit from Atlanta linebacker Sean Weatherspoon while scrambling. Griffin was forced from the game with what Shanahan at the time first called being shaken up and then a "mild concussion," and later that day Griffin tweeted that despite the scare, he was fine:
Thank you for all the prayers & supportI'm ok and I think after all the testing I will play next week.— Robert Griffin III (@RGIII) October 7, 2012
Shanahan was fined $20,000 by the NFL for not properly informing the news media of the injury, but sure enough, Griffin was under center for the following week's win over the Minnesota Vikings.
Griffin Goes Down Again
Several weeks passed without further incident, and by Week 14, Robert Griffin was the talk of the NFL, and the Redskins were very much in the thick of the NFC East race entering a huge game with the Baltimore Ravens.
Once again Griffin's willingness to sacrifice himself in an effort to help the team win the game came into play. While scrambling across the middle of the field with his team trailing, Griffin took a vicious hit from Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata that bent his knee backwards, an injury that center Will Montgomery told USA Today looked very serious at the time:
"It looked pretty bad," said center Will Montgomery." I said, 'I hope Kirk's getting his arm loose, because that looked pretty bad.'"
Although Griffin would briefly re-enter the game (a subject we'll touch on more in a bit), Kirk Cousins would eventually replace Griffin and lead the Redskins to victory in overtime.
An MRI showed no torn ligaments in Griffin's knee; he was diagnosed with a "mild" LCL sprain, and Shanahan told The Washington Post that his star quarterback was "day to day"
A Quick Return to Action
Griffin would miss the team's Week 15 matchup with the Cleveland Browns, and after Kirk Cousins not only started but threw for over 320 yards in a Redskins victory, many pundits expected that Washington would play it safe with the face of their franchise, even while embroiled in a playoff chase.
However, Griffin was back under center for Week 16's tilt with the Philadelphia Eagles wearing a brace on his injured knee, and after the Redskins won 27-20, Griffin told reporters the knee was fine, according to Nathan Fenno of The Washington Times:
"It feels good. Winning always cures all ills, so it felt good during the game. It feels good now. It's just good to be back out there with the guys."
Despite Griffin's comments, it was easy to see that the knee was nowhere near 100 percent. Before the Baltimore game, Griffin had averaged nearly 60 rushing yards per game. In the two games after he returned, he rushed for only 67 total, including only four yards on two attempts against the Eagles.
A Doctor's Dissension
That brings us to Sunday, which began not with the game between the Seahawks and Redskins, but with a very distressing article by Robert Klemko in USA Today.
In that article, Dr. James Andrews, who is widely considered the foremost orthopedic surgeon in America and who was on the sidelines in December when Griffin injured his knee against the Ravens, refutes Mike Shanahan's claims that he cleared Griffin to re-enter that game, even briefly:
"(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. I'm the one that shut him down that day, finally, I've been a nervous wreck letting him come back as quick as he has. He's doing a lot better this week, but he's still recovering and I'm holding my breath because of it."
Those fears turned out to be very well-founded.
And so we come to Sunday's Wild Card Game.
Granted, although Klemko's article and Andrews' comments were very much a topic of discussion entering the game, no one was complaining when Washington's first two drives ended in Griffin touchdown passes.
However, Griffin was forced to the locker room in the first quarter after tweaking the knee, and while he didn't miss a snap, it became plainly evident that not only was Griffin in significant pain, but that the injury was severely affecting his play on the field.
By the fourth quarter, Griffin had thrown for only 84 yards and was limping noticeably, leaving many to wonder if the Redskins might have a better chance at winning with Cousins in the game.
Then the bottom fell out.
On a botched shotgun snap late in the game, Griffin's knee buckled and he fell to the turf in a heap, unable to even reach for the ball as fans in FedEx Field sat in stunned silence.
That play, for all intents and purposes, ended Washington's season, and after the game, Griffin placed the blame on no one's shoulders but his own, according to ESPN:
"I think I did put myself at more risk," Griffin said. "But every time you get on the field, you're putting yourself on the line."
So What Went Wrong
An MRI has been scheduled for Monday, and until the results are known we won't know just how badly Griffin's knee was damaged. Frankly though it didn't look good, and Griffin tore the ACL in his right knee while at Baylor in 2009.
It's admirable of Griffin to accept responsibility for what happened, but it's also misguided. The only fault in this he bears is that he really needs to learn to slide more. However, that's just part of who he is as an athlete, and most injured athletes would readily deny the severity of their own pain in an effort to help their teammates win.
It's how they're wired. It's part of what makes them great athletes to begin with.
On the other hand, coaches and trainers are supposed to know better. They are supposed to think about the big picture, about not just one game, but next year, and the year after that.
They are also supposed to, in theory, care about the welfare of their players.
Mike Shanahan, for the record, has denied Andrews' assertions, claiming in a USA Today piece penned later Sunday by Klemko that he spoke to Andrews during that game in December and that Andrews "figured" it was OK for Griffin to go back in after watching him jog around.
"Figured"? Are we really supposed to buy that?
Mike Shanahan left his injured quarterback in a game where he was clearly limited, even though a viable backup in Kirk Cousins was sitting right there—and left him out there until his knee buckled.
He left Robert Griffin out there because he wanted to win this game. Right now. The franchise's future, and Griffin's, be damned.
That's what went wrong. And it may cost the Washington Redskins dearly.