In September 2012, Washington, D.C., sports fans absorbed an unprecedented loss: One of their professional franchises benched a healthy superstar to protect him from injury. Confusion and outrage followed the decision to end the season of ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg, a move that might have cost the Washington Nationals an appearance in the World Series.
Fifteen months later, the same fan base has seen it again: The Washington Redskins benched quarterback Robert Griffin III this week, ostensibly to avoid an injury that would affect his offseason training regimen. What's amazing, of course, is that the Redskins' decision would be far more defensible than the Nationals' if it weren't shrouded in the nasty politics of a showdown between coach Mike Shanahan and owner Daniel Snyder.
Think about it. Unlike the Nationals in 2012, the Redskins face little risk here. They are eliminated from playoff contention, so it means nothing if they win or lose their remaining three games. Any message the locker room might receive is irrelevant because Shanahan is almost certain to be replaced by a new coach and a different message before the 2014 season. (And if Shanahan somehow returns, that message will be forgotten by next season.) They have only one home game remaining, and frankly, fans already seem to have abandoned FedEx Field; a record-low 56,247 showed up for Griffin's final game of the season Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs.
The worst-case scenario for the Redskins is a poor performance from backup Kirk Cousins, one that would diminish his trade value if the Redskins' next coach is so inclined. If the worst to come of this decision is the revelation of substandard depth, then so be it. It would give the next regime a head start on evaluating the position this offseason.
The Nationals, on the other hand, faced an agonizing choice with franchise-altering consequences in either direction. They had agreed on a plan in spring training to limit Strasburg to about 160 innings, a workload that doctors agreed would minimize the risk of reinjuring an elbow that required Tommy John surgery the year before. Recent baseball history is littered with flameouts of hotshot pitchers, and the nascent Nationals franchise wanted to take a long-term approach.
And then a funny thing happened: The Nationals jumped into their first pennant race since relocating from Montreal eight years earlier. They were well on their way to an NL East championship and were World Series contenders when Strasburg hit his innings limit. He was 15-6 at the time, with a 3.16 ERA and 197 strikeouts in 159 1/3 innings, but general manager Mike Rizzo never budged from his position and ordered the shutdown.
The Nationals won their first NL East title but were eliminated by the St. Louis Cardinals in the ensuing Division Series. Manager Davey Johnson later said they would have won the World Series with Strasburg but remained supportive of the decision. In a reminder of the fickle nature of sports, Strasburg returned strong in 2013 to pitch 183 innings, but the Nationals were not the same team and missed the playoffs. Johnson retired and was replaced by Matt Williams last month. It's fair to wonder when the baseball stars will next align for the Nationals as they did in 2012.
The Redskins face no such implication for their decision, and I believe it would be viewed much differently if it were made by a coach in good standing and free of the drama that has enveloped the team. Fair or not, the long-term health of Griffin and the franchise appears secondary to Shanahan's desire to project one final image of authority to an owner he seems to be daring to overrule him.
During a news conference Wednesday, Shanahan suggested that the risk of Griffin suffering an injury and losing offseason work is greater than the reward of three more games of experience. Viewed independently of the organizational drama, that assessment has substantial merit. Griffin got 13 games of work and repetition this season, developing some bad habits and regressing in ways that his next coach must reverse this offseason. Do we really think he can start that process in meaningless outings this December under a lame-duck coach?
Shanahan's move is unconventional and almost anathema in a sport that preaches toughness and daily work, but original ideas with defensible support are always welcome in this space. The Nationals paid dearly for sticking to their plan, but the Redskins -- whether their motives are pure or not -- face no such repercussions. There is no real downside to ensuring the health of their top organizational asset.