Justin K. Aller
We are tempted in hindsight to skewer players, coaches and management over decisions that led to Robert Griffin III to have to undergo surgery today, but was their course of action dictated by the logic of the business?
Here in DC land a lot of folks are absolutely apoplectic over Robert Griffin III. As you undoubtedly know, RG III played in the Redskins playoff loss to Seattle, and in the process further damaged his injured knee putting his 2013 season and perhaps his career at risk. For Steelers fans who reside in the area the parallels to Ben Roethlisberger are stark and unavoidable. A franchise quarterback with a high risk style of play and fiercely competitive continues to compete beyond the point where he is of any benefit to himself or his team. The head coach and team medical staff seem unable or unwilling to intervene. The team loses, and in the case of RG III, the quarterback's future is jeopardized.
What does this narrative say about the state of the game? There is a pattern at play here I think (Ben, RG III and Byron Leftwich this year alone). Watching RG III on Sunday evening was eerily reminiscent to Ben on a Monday night game a year ago in San Francisco and probably, though less obvious, the latter portion of this season. And what about Leftwich playing with broken ribs against the Ravens? The common wisdom is that the players and coaches involved behaved in an irresponsible and reckless manner for allowing an injured quarterback to be pushed beyond his limits.
Anybody remember Jay Cutler? Cutler, you'll recall was called every name in the book because in a playoff game against Green Bay he didn't do what Ben and RG III did. He didn't soldier on until he was carried off on his shield. And for that exercise in prudence he was labeled a punk and a coward for betraying his team; a smear that follows him to this day. Some of that criticism also spilled over to the Bear's coaching staff as well.
So let's examine some of the possible reasons why players like Griffin, Ben and Leftwich make their choices and why presumably smart coaches like Mike Tomlin and Mike Shanahan seem loath to intervene. It is accepted wisdom that the key to a championship in the NFL is to have a quality franchise quarterback. There are exceptions; Baltimore in 2000, Tampa Bay in 2002, but they are considered just that, exceptions. Because the franchise quarterback is considered so valuable he is compensated with a considerable amount of money, much more usually than his well paid teammates. This effects the equation as well. Remember the movie where a man offers a woman an extraordinarily large sum of money in order to have sex. The assumption being that once the compensation moves beyond a certain threshold any and all ethical standards are subject to being forfeit. 'Look at what they're paying him. He can buy a new leg.'
Competitive drive aside there is certainly an expectation that the franchise quarterback is a difference maker, perhaps the only difference maker between championship level success and failure. This belief is reflected in his notoriety and compensation both on and off the field. It is fair to say that the top quarterbacks cross the line to become cultural icons. This is definitely true of RG III. Should we be surprised if they feel compelled to push the envelope in regard to injury when the stakes are so high for the organization, the community and their reputations? And it doesn't end there. The league, the networks and the advertisers have skin in the game as well. Kirk Cousins and Charlie Batch just don't have the same sort of sizzle.
And let's not forget the role of the fans and the media. We're pretty double minded about all this. We want the carnage but don't want to accept or face the inevitable consequences. We applaud and lust for the style of play and players that create injuries, then we resent players for actually getting injured. They are resented even more if they yield to their injuries and, you know, refrain from playing ala that 'punkass' Cutler. Then when RG III's knee twists grotesquely on national television the hue and cry goes up 'Oh my God how did they let this happen?'
It doesn't help that there is little or no patience among fans and media as well. It took Chuck Noll four years to get the Steelers into the playoffs, six to get into the Super Bowl. No way he would be given that much time in today's NFL. Mike Tomlin hasn't had a losing season in the six years he's been at the helm and the team has been to the Super Bowl twice. Not good enough in the minds of some. Remember the level of disappointment when it was learned that Ben wouldn't return in time for the second Ravens game? Have you ever had a shoulder separation? I have. It doesn't heal in three weeks, it doesn't heal in six. I think in retrospect that is now kinda obvious. But a season could be lost in three weeks, and that's the important thing. Fortunately, the only price that was paid was ineffectiveness as opposed to seriously aggravating the injury.
Were the criticisms of Byron Leftwich playing with broken ribs based upon whether or not it was a wise thing to do or simply because the team lost? This is the same player whose reputation was greatly enhanced when at Marshall he continued to lead his team though he was so injured that his offensive linemen had to carry him down the field after each play. Ben was labeled as heroic last year when he returned to the field in the second half against Cleveland when it was thought that he was on his way to the hospital. Players who are injured too often (Willie Colon) or stay out of action too long are China Dolls and liabilities to the team. Players who come back too soon, before they are 100 percent (Casey Hampton, Troy Polamalu, James Harrison) are suspected of being washed up and need to go. We say we are concerned about player safety and now insist that players who show symptoms of a concussion be removed and not allowed to return until they are fully healed. Alex Smith lost his job following that protocol. What do think the message is there?
It seems to me that head coaches are damned if they do and damned if they don't. Playing RG III seemed like sound strategy in the first quarter, and if Shanahan hadn't played him or if he had replaced him with Cousins earlier and they had still lost he would have likely have been subjected to as much heat as he is receiving currently.
There is a solution that would address the injury conundrums without degrading the quality of the game. Sadly, it will not likely to be considered because it would involve spending more money. Increase the size of the rosters. Shanahan was ridiculed during the draft for doing what in hindsight makes a great deal of sense, he picked two quality quarterbacks. Loosen the salary restrictions, expand the rosters to 75 or 80, give everyone a helmet on game day. In the case of Pittsburgh, the notion that you procure what is in essence a young emergency backup is outmoded. With, by my count, five first or second year quarterbacks in the playoffs the idea of grooming is, at best, optional. Instead, endeavor to have at least two starter capable quarterbacks of either identical or different styles on the roster. If one goes down to injury the season becomes more challenging but it is not dead. Across the roster, injured players are allowed to heal and work themselves back in more reasonable time frames or sit out the year if necessary. Instead of running older players who can still contribute on the field (and are still popular with fans) and in the locker room out of the game and purging younger players who have longer development curves they can either be retained by organizations like Pittsburgh that know how to meld these elements or are available to outfits who may have a better chance to succeed through the sheer weight of numbers.
Greed and the triumph of the values of entertainment over the logic of the game itself is making the NFL increasingly dysfunctional.