NFL Teams Must Stop Leaving Decision to Play in the Hands of Players

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NFL Teams Must Stop Leaving Decision to Play in the Hands of Players

The enduring image of the NFL's 2012 postseason won't be an owner hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, a ring-less veteran breaking down in tears or a quarterback "going to Disney World." 

When we look back on this postseason with our mind's eye, we'll first see Robert Griffin III's leg bent in a way no leg should bend, helplessly reaching for a fumble he'll never recover.

This was not how the final chapter of Griffin's storybook season was supposed to go. This is not how the epic tale of the magically gifted youngster was supposed to end—not with one of his enchanted legs devoured by FedEx Field's turf monster.

Who's to blame?

The quick answer is Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan. Griffin, playing on a barely healed knee, aggravated the injury early in the game. Griffin was hobbling around on the few called quarterback runs and unable to plant his leg and drive the ball when throwing downfield.

Rob Carr/Getty Images

According to Mark Maske of The Washington Post, Shanahan said he'd "probably second-guess myself" about leaving Griffin in. Of course he would, now that his team is out of the playoffs and his franchise quarterback is seriously injured.

If Griffin weren't facing surgery and extended rehab, or if the Redskins had advanced to the second round, would anyone, let alone the man himself, be second-guessing Shanahan?

“I promise you," Shanahan told Maske, "If we thought it had something to do with Robert’s career and his injury and he shouldn’t be in there, we would have took him out.”

It's hard to believe Shanahan saw his quarterback running like a three-legged penguin and didn't think it had anything to do with his knee injury.

Let's put the question of Griffin's career on the back burner for a moment. There's an argument to be made that Griffin was so ineffective, he shouldn't have been in there anyway.

After Griffin's injury, the Redskins didn't score—despite coming away with touchdowns on each of the two drives during which he was okay. Shanahan could, and should, have made the decision to sit Griffin on pure football terms.

Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Do you smell that? Something's burning. Oh, yes! We left Griffin's career on the back burner.

Professional athletes can't be the ones who make the decision on whether or not they play. They can't for two reasons: the two words that make up their job title.

"Athlete." They're athletes. They play sports; it's what they do. Some play because they love the game so much they'd play for free. Some play because they're hyper-competitive and they desperately want to win. Some play because they're incredibly good at it. Most play for some combination of those factors, but they're players—they'll play if they can.

Very, very few professional athletes would voluntarily remove themselves from a playoff game if they thought they could contribute to a victory.

Griffin told Maske, "You respect authority and I respect Coach Shanahan. But at the same time, you have to step up and be a man sometimes. There was no way I was coming out of that game."

Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
Griffin can't ever forget that Cousins is right behind him.

Griffin's burning desire to win, and willingness to sacrifice for the team's benefit are commendable. If a player would risk his career to win one game, though, he's not the one who should be making the decision.

"Professional." That's the other word that comes into play. Griffin is a professional athlete; being the Redskins' starting quarterback is his job. If Kirk Cousins steps in and leads the Redskins to the second round, the conference championship game or especially a Lombardi Trophy, Griffin could be out of a job.

So for Griffin, the risk cuts both ways: Saying he can't help the Redskins win a playoff game risks his career just as surely as saying he can play when he can't.

According to Forbes, the Redskins are paying Mike Shanahan $7 million a year to be the head coach of the Redskins. But they're not really paying him to be the head coach of the Redskins—they're paying him to win. Shanahan's primary responsibility is to make sure the Redskins win as often as possible.

In the long run, taking care of Robert Griffin's health falls under that umbrella, but on that night, it was win or bust—and it was Shanahan's job to make the call. If Shanahan truly tried to pull Griffin but let Griffin talk his way back into the game, Shanahan failed.

Then again, is it fair to put that burden on head coaches?

Just a few months beforehand, in the very same city, Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson shut down young superstar pitcher Stephen Strasburg for the season, even though the Nationals were playoff-bound and Strasburg was healthy.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports
Nationals manager Davey Johnson took plenty of heat for shutting down Stephen Strasburg.

Lots of smart people, including Grantland.com's Rany Jazayerli, argued that by aiming so low with Strasburg's innings, Johnson was shooting himself (and the Nationals) in the foot. Now, Shanahan's getting killed for letting RGIII, the Redskins' equivalent of Strasburg, overrule him.

There was one other person on the Redskins sideline for that Wild Card Game who could (and should) have had more input. Dr. James Andrews, arguably the world's best orthopedic surgeon, was right there clad in burgundy and gold.

Andrews, who serves as the Redskins' team doctor, told USA Today he's "been a nervous wreck" about how fast he let the Redskins rush Griffin back, and going into the Wild Card Game, he was "holding his breath" about the knee's strength.

Only Griffin can tell how much pain he's in, but only a doctor can tell when an injury is healed. The decision shouldn't be in the hands of the injured player or their coach. The decision should be in the hands of a doctor—preferably not one cashing checks from the club.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
The players have asked the league for independent neurologists; why not independent orthopedists?

As recently as November, the NFL Players Association asked the NFL to hire independent neurologists as on-site concussion-risk evaluators, according to NFL Network's Albert Breer. NFL spokesperson Greg Aiello reiterated the league's stance: Team doctors know players' baselines, so independent doctors would make brain injury evaluations less accurate.

Griffin's case disproves that theory.

The top orthopedic surgeon in the world is on the Redskins' staff for just such an occasion, but had no authority to keep Griffin out of the starting lineup despite "holding his breath" and "being a nervous wreck" about it, and could not (or did not) take Griffin out of the game when he aggravated the injury.

The NFLPA should add on-field independent orthopedists to its request for for on-field independent neurologists. As this incident proves beyond a shadow of a doubt, players and coaches can't make any better decisions about risking knee injuries than they can about brain injuries.

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