Initial Thoughts: Seahawks 24, Redskins 14

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Here’s what I’m thinking immediately after the Redskins’ 24-14 loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday in the wild card round of the playoffs:

Before analyzing the game and putting the season in perspective, let’s start with the right knee injury that sidelined QB Robert Griffin III in the fourth quarter.

Coach Mike Shanahan said he would second guess his deference to Griffin’s assertion that he should remain in the game after aggravating his sprained lateral collateral ligament while passing on the Redskins’ second drive. And given the more serious injury Griffin suffered in the fourth quarter and how ineffective the offense was after the first two drives, second guessing seems a fair endeavor.

Shanahan’s decision to play or replace Griffin is a difficult one. Shanahan understands Griffin’s tremendous value to the offense and, by extension, his impact on the Redskins’ chances of winning. No one who has watched the team this season would dispute that.

Doctors cleared Griffin to return to the game, Shanahan said, although I’m not sure whether to believe him after Dr. James Andrews, according to a USA Today report Sunday morning, refuted Shanahan’s claim that doctors cleared Griffin to return to the Baltimore game on Dec. 9.

But if we take as truth Shanahan’s claim that doctors cleared Griffin, then I believe Shanahan is justified in letting Griffin continue to play – initially. Shanahan, Griffin and other Redskins players were adamant that Griffin had earned the privilege of determining his status himself because of how well he has played this season and because he knows his body better than anyone. I agree with that.

“He’s your franchise guy,” LB Lorenzo Alexander said. “Guys earn the right to do that; I think he’s done that throughout this year. It’s the same thing with Fletch (ILB London Fletcher). If he hurts his ankle or leg or whatever and it doesn’t look good, but if he thinks he can go out there and play through it, you allow him to do that.”

Alexander with his next breath, though, made another important point.

“Once it becomes detrimental to his own health and the team, which you saw, obviously, when he fumbled the ball and couldn’t even pick it up, that’s when you’ve got to pull a guy no matter what he says at that point because now you’ve got to protect him from himself,” Alexander said.

OK, let’s dig deeper into Alexander’s second point. Did playing Griffin become “detrimental to his own health and the team” BEFORE he suffered the more severe knee injury in the fourth quarter? Some plays lead me to believe the answer is yes.

We’re best served dividing that question into its two parts. As far as being detrimental to the team, it was apparent the offense was not effective on Griffin’s six possessions after aggravating his LCL. The Redskins averaged only 1.57 yards per play on those possessions, gained only four first downs and, of course, did not score.

“We weren’t the same team,” Shanahan said. “There’s no question about it.”

Was Griffin’s injury the reason for the lack of production? Or was it just Seattle’s defense? Griffin, to me, wasn’t as elusive behind the line of scrimmage as he is when fully healthy. He was 10 of 19 passing for 84 yards in the game; after the first two drives he was 4 of 10 for only 16 yards. He missed a throw high. He missed others low.

The injury also limited what plays the Redskins could choose from.

“I think Robert not being able to run definitely hampers some of the stuff we do,” TE Logan Paulsen said. “It kind of took that all out of the playbook, all the play-action stuff we have off of it, all the runs we have off of it. It’s a good percentage of our offense that you can’t really run as effectively as we’re used to running.”

Shanahan knows those limitations, obviously, and he still felt comfortable sending Griffin back out for six possessions. The results on the stat sheet and the scoreboard don’t validate that decision.

Griffin stood firm, though, in his belief he still could have been effective after aggravating his LCL.

“I don’t feel like me being out there hurt the team in any way,” he said.

Shanahan also believed Griffin’s lower-body passing mechanics were OK.

“I don’t think he had any problems planting in the pocket,” said Shanahan, who reserved the right to re-evaluate that statement after watching the game film.

As for whether playing Griffin was detrimental to his health, the answer to that seemed obviously affirmative after his knee buckled and he writhed on the ground with 6:19 remaining. If the Redskins’ team doctors truly cleared Griffin to return to the game after aggravating the LCL in the first quarter, are we to believe Griffin’s knee would’ve buckled as it did in the fourth quarter without the pre-existing injury? That’s a hard sell for me. He clearly was favoring his leg throughout the second half.

“I think I did put myself at more risk by being out there, but every time you step on the football field…you’re putting your life, your career, every single ligament in your body in jeopardy,” he said. “That’s just the approach I had to take towards it. My teammates needed me out there, so I was out there for them.”

So, going back to Alexander’s question, the offense suffered with Griffin at less than full health AND Griffin injured his knee more severely. And I’m writing this before we know the diagnosis of the fourth-quarter injury. (Griffin went for an MRI exam Sunday night.) Given both of those affirmatives, and with the benefit of hindsight, it seems the Redskins would have had the best chance to win AND protect Griffin’s long-term health by replacing him with backup QB Kirk Cousins.

“You got to go with your gut, and I did,” Shanahan said. “I’m not saying my gut is always right, but I’ve been there before. In different situations, I get to know Robert better and better as time goes on. I’ll know how stubborn he is. He’s a competitor, and I’ll probably second guess myself.”

I liked Shanahan use the word “stubborn” because it’s apparent that’s an appropriate description for Griffin in these situations. The thing is, shouldn’t Shanahan know that by now? Shouldn’t he understand Griffin isn’t going to take himself out of the game? He tried to go back into the Atlanta game in October after suffering a concussion.

It’s up to Shanahan as the head coach, then, to be extremely skeptical when Griffin tries to talk his way back onto the field. The problem there is that Shanahan WANTS Griffin back on the field because of his value to the team at full strength. That could skew his decision making when determining whether Griffin needs to be protected from himself.

After Griffin hobbled 9 yards to the Seahawks’ sideline on a fourth-quarter zone-read run, Shanahan questioned Griffin again about his health. “He said, ‘Coach, I could’ve run faster,’” Shanahan recalled. “‘Nobody was there. I got 9.5-10 yards. That’s not too bad. I promise if I have to do it again I could go faster.’ He gave me the right answer.”

Shanahan’s last sentence stuck with me: “He gave me the right answer.” Even though Griffin was stubborn and insisted he could play, Shanahan considered that the “right answer.” Griffin ended up doing more damage to his knee.

Also in play here is how toughness is valued in football.

“He’s a tough dude,” Paulsen said of Griffin. “He’s a man of steel, in my opinion.”

It’s up to Shanahan to ensure Griffin applies that in positive ways, not in ways that jeopardize his availability going forward.

***

Moving on, players weren’t eager to savor their 10-6 regular-season record and division championship immediately after the loss. That’s understandable, of course. Many, however, recognized the fact that 31 out of 32 teams fail to win the ultimate prize and that there’s no shame being in that majority after their 3-6 start.

“It’s hard to lose,” ILB Lorenzo Alexander said. “We had a good run and put ourselves in a position to win. It’s hard to say, ‘Let’s look at the future right now.’ I’m still kind of upset we lost this game to Seattle. Obviously, there is a bigger picture. We had some positive things this year.

“I think we’ll be a better team next year because learned how to win this year. You can definitely carry that over to the next season, especially with a lot of young guys, a good core group of veterans on this team. Hopefully we’re able to bring a lot of guys back, add some pieces and start even faster next year.”

I’m intrigued by Alexander’s belief the Redskins learned how to win during the second half of the season. I got the same sense as an observer from up close. That had to do with how the Redskins developed an expectation to win every game and how they improved protecting leads. (Obviously they failed to protect a 14-point lead against Seattle, but that was a special case because of a quarterback injury).

Because of the Redskins’ core of offensive playmakers and a roster that’s getting younger, it’s easy to see Sunday’s playoff game as the first of many for this franchise in the years to come.

***

That said, I couldn’t escape the feeling Sunday night – and over the last month, too – that the storylines involving Griffin’s knee injury are going to repeat themselves throughout his career. He’s susceptible to injuries because of his preference to scramble instead of throw the ball away and because of how the Redskins design runs for him. Even if the Redskins try to have him throw from the pocket more frequently next season, we must not forget he suffered a concussion and a sprained knee while scrambling on designed passes.

Let’s say the Redskins go 15-1 and earn the top seed in the NFC playoffs, home field advantage and all that. Their playoff hopes, at least with the way the team plays right now, still would depend on Griffin’s health – and that’s not a sure thing.

To put it another way, if Griffin ends up like Michael Vick – and by that I mean missing a couple games each season and often having to play through injuries – the future success many foresee because of Griffin’s high growth potential and the core of talent around him becomes significantly less likely.

***

The Redskins’ first two drives Sunday were examples of this offense at its best. The reason: Griffin appeared as close to full health as he has at any time since spraining his knee on Dec. 9.

Seattle was off balance as the Redskins ran zone-read, outside zone tosses, play-action passes, bootlegs and screens.  

“It felt like we were going to blow them out,” TE Logan Paulsen said. “Unfortunately, injuries happen.”

It’s the flip-side example of how the offense’s success is correlated to Griffin’s health. The Redskins have to figure out how to keep him healthy next season and beyond. Whether that’s making him to throw the ball away, slide, get out of bounds – all that.

***

The defense doesn’t deserve the majority of blame for this loss. It played respectably without any help from the offense after the first quarter. NT Barry Cofield’s forced fumble at the goal line in the third quarter was a major victory for the defense. Otherwise, the game could have really gotten away from Washington.

On the down side, the Redskins surrendered season-highs in rushing yards (224) and yards per attempt (6.1); they gave up two critical third-and-longs; and they missed too many tackles.

The defense ranked last in the NFL this season in third-down conversion percentage. ILB Lorenzo Alexander offered a possible solution for that after the game.

“I think we just need to figure out a way to play some coverage and get some pass rush,” he said. “Ultimately, you can’t blitz all the time. If you’re blitzing, you’ve got a lot of one on ones and zero coverages, and that puts us at a disadvantage at times.

“I think this offseason we really need to figure out how to get some four-man pressure and be consistent with it all year. I think a lot of that will improve with getting a guy like Rak (OLB Brian Orakpo) back, who’s obviously so explosive and takes some of the pressure off of [OLB Ryan] Kerrigan. Hopefully we can get Rob [Jackson, OLB] back, as well, because he’s a free agent. Having that rotation going and get that started early and often, then we can play some coverage. We won’t have to worry about being stressed out there on islands as corners and safeties.”

For me, the game turned on two plays. The first-and-goal pass on the Washington’s second drive on which QB Robert Griffin was injured, and Seattle’s conversion of third-and-12 on the ensuing drive.

The Redskins led 14-0 and were well positioned to get the ball back after ILB Perry Riley’s sack at the Seattle 18-yard line. But CB Josh Wilson missed a tackle of TE Zach Miller, and the Seahawks drove 56 more yards on eight plays to kick a field goal. They got RB Marshawn Lynch going on that drive and ensured they wouldn’t have to abandon the run.

Seattle’s comeback was on at that point. Griffin was hobbled and the Redskins’ offense was stuck.

***

Not only was the condition of the playing surface at FedEx Field a colossal embarrassment, it turned out to be dangerous. QB Robert Griffin III’s leg gave out when he planted in that mess between the hash marks.

The condition of the field is a running joke among players. I’m not sure why it continues to be in such a bad state each year. Perhaps the high, enclosed stadium walls prevent it from getting enough sunlight. That’s a guess. Maybe the Redskins should consider installing artificial grassy turf, especially if they continue to host concerts during the NFL preseason and college football games.

***

Poor field position negatively affected the Redskins’ offense. Washington’s average start was its 21-yard line. Seattle’s was its 41.

“It kind of makes you have to play tentative as an offense,” TE Logan Paulsen said of being backed up.

***

QB Russell Wilson is damn good. It’s hard not to think of Robert Griffin when Wilson extends the play behind the line of scrimmage, accurately places passes to the sideline and bursts upfield in the zone-read game.

The Redskins tried to keep him in the pocket but too often lost contain.

“He’s elusive just like Robert is,” ILB Lorenzo Alexander said. “A guy like that gets behind his blockers, sometimes you kind of lose vision on him and then he’s seeping out. Losing ground to gain ground. He’s more athletic than most D-ends. It’s kind of hard to keep up with a guy like that that can run that well. And then he did, I think, I great job of keeping his eyes down the field as he’s doing that. He finds guys open, and a couple of his receivers made some great catches for him today, as well.”

That made Wilson difficult to defend on third downs. He completed a 22-yard catch-and-run to TE Zach Miller on third-and-10 in the fourth quarter with the Redskins clinging to a 14-13 lead. If Washington got off the field there, they might have been able to pound the run and take some time off the clock.

Instead, Alexander lost sight of Miller because he got preoccupied with Wilson. That’s what the Wilson’s ability to run does. And, yeah, that sounds familiar to the way we talk about Robert Griffin.

Wilson and RB Marshawn Lynch are a dynamite combination in the backfield. Again, they’re similar to Griffin and RB Alfred Morris.

Lynch is a brilliant cutback runner. Against the Redskins, his vision is diagnosing cutback lanes was excellent, and he broke several tackles.

“Big. Strong. Fast,” said Alexander, who knows Lynch well from their time at California. “He’s a beast. Just real strong, tough, runs-with-an-attitude type guy. If you don’t bring your lunch pail, you get what you get.”

It’s easy to see why the Seahawks are a Super Bowl dark horse with those two in the backfield.

***

SS Reed Doughty did well finishing plays behind the line of scrimmage. He was relentless in pursuit of the elusive Wilson, and he had two sacks. However, Doughty was down on himself after the game for not intercepting Wilson in the second quarter.

On second-and-7 from the Washington 9, Doughty defended an area in the end zone and stepped in front of WR Doug Baldwin when Baldwin ran behind him and stopped near the end line. Wilson’s throw went right to Doughty. Doughty was a bit surprised the throw came right to him, and he didn’t come back to the ball. Baldwin ended up defending the pass and preventing an interception. Two plays later, Seattle kicked a field goal for its first points.

***

I’ll wind it up with a big-picture item. Inside the locker room immediately after the game, before reporters were allowed in, veteran ILB and team captain London Fletcher delivered a speech to the team. He told his teammates it was the second-best team experience he has had in his 15 NFL seasons (second to the Super Bowl team he played on in St. Louis in 1999-2000).

“He just said this is the team he had the most fun on and had the most respect for the guys playing just because all of the adversity that we faced this year and how we were able to overcome it and closed the season out the right way,” TE Logan Paulsen shared.

It was an emotional moment for several players who were mindful of Fletcher’s age. At 37, he must eventually decide whether he wants to play another season.

“I’ll take the same process that I’ve taken the last four or five years,” Fletcher said. “I’ll take some time to let the emotions of the season kind of get away, refresh for a little bit, and then sit down with my family and make the decision from there.”

…overall, it was a great season that Redskins fans should savor. And fans have every right to expect another step forward next season - provided Robert Griffin is healthy through the offseason. We should learn more about that Monday. Coach Mike Shanahan is scheduled to meet with reporters at 3 p.m.

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