- John Keim, ESPN Staff Writer
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ASHBURN, Va. -- The rumors swirled about, as they often do in Washington. Mike Shanahan was benching Robert Griffin III to force his own ouster. He was doing it as a parting shot to an organization he wants to leave at season's end. Or to upset a player with whom he does not get along.
Shanahan said the move had nothing to do with any of that. Rather, he said Griffin has been hit too much in recent games and the coach wanted to make sure that the quarterback reaches the offseason healthy -- something he did not do last season because of torn ligaments in his knee, missed time that cost him a chance for more success this season.
Therefore, Shanahan said Kirk Cousins will start Sunday against the Falcons in Atlanta, and Griffin will not play again the rest of the season. Rex Grossman will be the backup. All of this comes amid the backdrop of Shanahan's uncertain job security, with his return for a fifth season in serious jeopardy. He said all of that is not relevant to Wednesday's decision.
"The best thing to do is give him an opportunity to go into that third year injury free to get a chance to get better in the offseason," Shanahan said. "I know that will be the difference in him being 100 percent healthy and him going to the offseason being the leader. I think it would set him back so much if he missed another offseason, which could happen. I didn't think the risk-reward was worth it.
"When you take a look at a quarterback who is your franchise quarterback, he's your future. If you miss two offseasons in a row it'd be the hardest thing to recover from."
Griffin was dispirited during his nine-minute news conference, looking as down as he had all season. During the portion of practice open to the media, he stood in the background, holding his helmet behind his waist, and watched Cousins and Grossman take snaps with the starters and second unit, respectively.
Griffin said he lobbied Shanahan to remain in the lineup, something the coach expected.
"Coach's decision is what we go with," Griffin said. "That's the way it's always been, so I have to do that. I have to sit here and do whatever I can to help Kirk, do whatever I can to help this team win. In times like these you just have to lean on what you've been taught in life and my parents, being military parents, have taught me to respect authority, and I have to respect what Coach says."
Nor does he want to consider that he could be a pawn in some sort of power play with Shanahan. Griffin's discontent with Shanahan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has been widely discussed.
"You just can't think about it that way," Griffin said. "We have three games left, and my teammates don't need me to think about it that way. They don't need me to bring that kind of environment into the locker room, so I'm not going to."
Shanahan said he first addressed the possibility of this move a week ago with owner Dan Snyder and general manager Bruce Allen. Shanahan said because of the importance of the quarterback position -- and the circus that ensues when there's a change -- he always would discuss it with Snyder.
"I said if either one of you is not 100 percent behind my reasoning I'm giving you, I said we won't go there," Shanahan said. "Nothing needs to be said. We'll just keep it status quo. ... I said, 'Hey, Dan, we're not going to go this direction unless you fully support it. Same thing with Bruce. You've got to tell me you're behind this and in favor of it, but I don't want anybody coming back in a game or two and saying, Hey, we should have talked about this. Robert's getting a lot of hits.'"
Neither Snyder nor Allen was available for comment. Snyder is not expected to talk about this situation, or Shanahan's job security, until after the season, if at all.
Shanahan said he wants to return for a fifth season, but doesn't know if that will happen. He said they'll sit down after the season and discuss the situation. The general belief is that Shanahan will not return, especially after an ESPN.com story Sunday that said Shanahan wanted to quit last season over Snyder's relationship with Griffin.
"We may have big differences and we say, 'Hey, I believe in this, you believe in that,' and you go," Shanahan said of his future meeting with Snyder. "Or you say, 'Hey, we're on the same page and let's go forward.' I can't tell you that until I talk with him."
Shanahan said one reason he made the move with Griffin stems from what happened against Seattle in the 2012 playoffs. In the first quarter, while on a touchdown drive, Griffin reinjured his right knee. With the Redskins leading 14-0, Shanahan said his gut feeling was to pull Griffin. But Shanahan said Dr. James Andrews told him Griffin's knee was stable and Griffin himself told him he could continue. Later in the game, Griffin ended up tearing his ACL and needed surgery on multiple ligaments.
"You reflect on mistakes you made during the season with different injuries," Shanahan said.
Shanahan's news conference lasted 28 minutes, and the coach was animated throughout it. He also wanted to be clear on his motives.
"Somebody said, 'Hey, the reason you're going with Kirk is you're trying to get fired and you've got a year left on your contract.' If I'm trying to get fired," Shanahan said, "I'm not going to call up Dan Snyder and ask his opinion on a player. I don't have to. If he says no, I'm not going to go that direction."
Cousins led the Redskins to a win in a Week 15 start in 2012, but has been limited to two appearances for mop-up duty this season. He's completed 12 of 25 passes for 107 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.
"These aren't the circumstances you want to be in when you start the season," Cousins said. "But, good or bad, I've got to be ready to go. I can't control a lot of things going on, but I can control my preparation and I can control how I lead my team this weekend, so I'm going to do that. ... Certainly it's human nature you're going to have a heightened sense of urgency now that you know. But it shouldn't change anything that I'm doing to get ready."
The players are doing the same.
"Coach has to make a decision and we have to deal with it," Redskins receiver Pierre Garcon said. "It can boost team energy. It definitely can't hurt us. We're working hard and coach sees something we can improve on."
Hall of Fame coach John Madden said on Sirius XM NFL Radio that Shanahan's decision to sit Griffin affects the integrity of the game. Madden believes Griffin would be playing if Washington was fighting for a playoff berth so there's no reason he shouldn't be playing now.
"I do know this: when the going goes tough you don't quit," Madden said. "And you don't fold up And you don't go in the other direction. I think you stay with what you believe you stay with who you are, you stay with what you are. And we have an integrity piece here, too.
"You can say well they're 3-10, they're out of it, so now they can do these things. No you can't. This is still regular-season football. Draft order, that's one small thing, but you still owe it to the people that are playing, that are still in the playoff picture. And when you can affect that and you don't affect it with an all-out performance, then I think that affects the integrity of the game. ... If you're in the regular season, there's only one way to play, and that's to play your best people to win the game, every regular season game."
Kirk Cousins will replace Robert Griffin III at quarterback Sunday when the Washington Redskins face the Atlanta Falcons.