Robert Griffin III exhaled deeply and saluted the crowd as he walked off the field in the fourth quarter Sunday night. His sprained right knee, aggravated in the first quarter, finally gave out. It gruesomely buckled, brace and all, when he tried to pick up a low shotgun snap rolling on the ground.
Fans cheered their hero, the face of this resurgent Washington Redskins franchise, as he exited the stage, knowing they’ll have to wait at least through the offseason to watch him work his magic again.
Griffin’s early knee injury turned the thoroughbred quarterback into a gimpy also-ran. It kept the Redskins‘ offense in neutral and allowed the Seattle Seahawks to come from behind for a 24-14 playoff victory that ended Washington’s historic season.
The fallout of the loss and Griffin’s re-injury immediately landed on coach Mike Shanahan’s shoulders. He and Griffin defended the decision to let Griffin continue playing despite the results on the scoreboard, and despite the re-injury that sent Griffin for an MRI exam Sunday night.
“I thought he did enough for us this year to have that opportunity to stay in the football game,” Shanahan said. “It’s always a tough decision when to pull a guy and when not to. He said, ‘Trust me. I want to be in there, and I deserve to be in there,’ and I couldn’t disagree with him.”
Washington totaled 129 yards and averaged 6.5 yards per play on two touchdown drives to begin the game. Griffin was injured on the third-to-last play of the second drive.
“We weren’t the same team,” Shanahan said. “There’s no question about it.”
Then why leave Griffin in the game?
“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.”
Griffin told Shanahan he was hurt, but he distinguished between being hurt and being injured. It’s an accepted distinction in the football world. Being hurt means playing through pain. Being injured means sitting out.
“I don’t feel like me being out there hurt the team in any way,” Griffin said. “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. That’s just the approach I had to take towards it. My teammates needed me out there, so I was out there for them.”
It worked against the Redskins, as it turned out.
In their first home playoff game since January 2000, they lost for the first time in eight games dating to Nov. 4. It was a bitter end to a campaign that fostered more optimism than any since they last won the NFC East title in 1999.
The Redskins won the final seven games of the regular season to finish 10-6 and win the division. Their core of young offensive playmakers provide reason to believe there will be many more of these playoff games in future years, although Griffin’s injury cast immediate doubt about his status moving forward.
“It’s just truly exciting,” Griffin said, “even though today is a very dim day.”
It was a stunning conclusion to an evening that began with such promise.
The Redskins‘ offense initially played like the league’s top-ranked unit. They met little resistance on the opening drive, marching 80 yards on nine plays for a touchdown. Griffin threw a 4-yard dart to running back Evan Royster to give the Redskins a 7-0 lead.
After the defense held the Seahawks three-and-out, Washington’s offense did it again. Griffin had an 8-yard run on a zone-read keeper, showing a level of burst he hadn’t since he sprained his right knee on Dec. 9.
Washington drove 54 yards for a touchdown in 11 plays. The crowd of 84,325 got louder as the yards piled up. Griffin’s 4-yard touchdown throw to Logan Paulsen made it 14-0. The Redskins were the steamroller, and Seattle was the asphalt.
But — there was a huge but — Griffin was injured. On first-and-goal from the 4-yard line on the second drive, he extended an ill-fated pass play by running to the right sideline. As he threw near the boundary, he fell awkwardly with his right leg underneath him.
“Robert not being able to run definitely hampers some of the stuff we do,” tight end Logan Paulsen said. “It kind of took a lot out of the playbook, all the play-action stuff we have off of it, all the runs we have off of it, so that’s a good percentage of our offense that we can’t really run as effectively.”
Griffin obviously was limited. It didn’t help he banged his right throwing hand on one of his linemen’s helmets in the first quarter. His throws languished, and he wasn’t the running threat he appeared to be at the beginning of the game.
Meanwhile, Seattle’s Russell Wilson showed why he drawn comparisons to Griffin. He extended passing plays behind the line of scrimmage, scrambled for positive yards and threw accurately when he needed to.
Wilson ran for 67 yards and threw for a touchdown, while bruising running back Marshawn Lynch ran for 132 yards on 20 carries. They executed the zone-read option just as the Redskins do at their best, and they kept Washington’s defense off balance.
The game was lost, the season was over, and their franchise’s quarterback’s status is in doubt.
“I’ve just got to make sure that I get back healthy no matter what the injury is,” Griffin said.
How quickly the magic stopped.
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