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Thursday, January 10, 2013
NFL coaches' decisions about now

By Tim Keown
ESPN.com

Mike Shanahan undoubtedly knows that a football player isn't and never has been a rational or responsible guardian of his own health. This is not a new concept; the durability and evidence of the theory can be found in the thousands of former players hobbling around wondering where they put their keys. The equation is pretty straightforward: Violence plus competiveness plus the power of brotherhood equals a disregard for personal welfare.

Robert Griffin III
For a player such as Robert Griffin III, being there for teammates is also a motivating factor.

And that's why the commotion surrounding Robert Griffin III's knee injury is part of a bigger narrative. It has its roots in the game's history and in the more recent stories of Alex Smith, Jay Cutler and the seven coaches fired the day after the regular season ended. It's part of a confluence of events and circumstances far bigger than one player and one coach and one game -- even when that one player is the game's most marketable and exciting young star.

Griffin said he could play, that he knew the difference between pain and injury, and Shanahan -- perhaps operating on hope -- chose to believe his quarterback when the available evidence indicated otherwise. The end result -- a predictable and preventable injury that resulted in two torn knee ligaments -- shows why Shanahan's decision to believe the unbelievable was not only foolish but dangerous.

But the coach and the quarterback were operating under two versions of the same set of rules. For Shanahan, the rule is to do whatever he can to create a win for the Washington Redskins. The seven coaches who lost their jobs can tell you that, and every coach who made the playoffs knows he can't count on his owner, especially one as demanding as Dan Snyder, throwing a party for a first-round loss. Before Sunday, Shanahan might have been considered above the fray, one of those rare coaches accomplished enough to see the bigger picture and rich enough to make the unpopular decision and damn the consequences. Now, though, no.

For Griffin, the rules are clear. A player who sits out a big game with an injury we can't see is labeled a loser and a quitter and usually worse. Cutler's reputation was smacked around like a tetherball when he sat out much of the second half of the NFC Championship Game two years ago with a sprained knee ligament that was probably an awkward cut on a loose chunk of turf -- or a bad shotgun snap -- away from something similar to what Griffin suffered.

A rookie in his first playoff game is expected to tough it out, to play through pain and will his team to victory despite everything. Griffin had the NFL Myth Starter Kit going, if only he could have stayed upright and pulled off the win. Instead of questioning his judgment, and that of his coach, we would have been lauding his courage and proclaiming him a legendary leader of men. Who knows, maybe one fewer bad snap and we'd all be spending the week sifting through the maudlin remains of another football fairy tale.

Jay Cutler
When Jay Cutler didn't go back into the game in 2011, plenty of people questioned his toughness.

Griffin was emphatic both during and after Sunday's game: He wanted to play. In reality, though, it was different: He needed to play. He needed to play until either the clock or his knee gave out. And if Shanahan benched him, he needed to make it known that he disagreed with the decision. Amid the violence and competitiveness and brotherhood, he had no other choice. Shanahan, because he wears slacks and a headset instead of a helmet and pads, was the one responsible for making the choice Griffin couldn't make himself.

You could say Alex Smith made the decision himself. He followed protocol two months ago. He stayed in the game after a big hit, but ultimately left after telling the 49ers trainers he had blurred vision. He wasn't ready to play, so he didn't. In the new age of injury-awareness and lawsuits, he should have been a candidate for his own "NFL Cares" after-school special.

He might have saved his life, but he lost his job.

It's not just about money, either. I've watched high school players -- my own sons included -- wobble around after a hit and then hesitate before running off the field. They scan the sideline to find the trainer and then head to the farthest possible point, determined to stay as far away as possible for as long as possible. They buy themselves a few precious seconds -- violence and competitiveness and brotherhood.

The football culture can be twisted and illogical. Humans are called upon to do things humans weren't meant to do -- it's part of the reason we like to watch. Within the confines of this culture, Griffin was a man -- Wednesday's surgery proved it. Smith, perhaps because faculties and not ligaments were at stake, chose a different path. Was he any less of a man? Of course not. But his team will play Saturday night, and chances are he won't.