Is Starting RGIII In Week 1 The Smart Move For Washington?

Created on Aug. 27, 2013 6:00 AM EST

By all accounts, Robert Griffin III will be under center for the Washington Redskins’ regular season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sept. 9. His recovery from offseason reconstructive surgery has been remarkable, and his progression this summer steady and without incident (well, at least his knee itself has been drama-free).

He did calisthenics at the team’s NFL Draft party, pitched it around during OTAs in the spring and recently returned to 11-on-11 drills. Along the journey down the yellow brick road to recovery, RGIII has hardly missed an opportunity to preach his intended readiness for the opener or mock his employer’s outrageously conservative and inflexible plan for turning him — the great symbol of orthopedic brilliance and obsessive competitiveness that he is — loose. His latest act included a ham-it-up sideline session with Dr. James Andrews, some pre-game sprints, an NFL-illegal “Operation Patience” Adidas shirt (a $10,000 wardrobe malfunction), and a declaration to this coach that he can, as he said in a recent ESPN interview, “still hit turbo” speed.  

His act, that of a cocky but lovable football Casanova, has seduced us all, thereby having its desired effect: shifting the conversation from if to when he’ll be cleared play for Week 1. If possible, shake of the warm fuzzies created by his charisma, get back to a place where excessive emotion has been arrested and logic has reclaimed its rightful spot in your decision-making model and ask yourself this question: if you were Mike Shanahan, and assuming Dr. Andrews medically cleared him, would you start RGIII against Philadelphia?

The obvious answer is that any NFL coach would start a medically capable player that provides a greater chance of winning a game — and RGIII certainly does that. But the answer to this question, like most things surrounding their fascinating quarterback, isn’t that simple. As The Dude might have said in The Big Lebowski, with RGIII there are “a lotta ins, a lotta outs, a lotta what-have-yous.” And as The Dude might also say, here are a few variables about the situation to help “limber up your mind.”

The Knee Bone’s Connected To The Thigh Bone…

Let’s start with the tangible: his right knee. It has, on two occasions now, played the role of a crash test dummy in a poorly designed compact car. The knee, like the rest of the body it is part of, is a scrapping and youthful 23 years old; but the decision to play him should not assume what is now “just” an ACL injury. RGIII’s new ACL was harvested from his left knee, and there was additional damage to his LCL ligament and meniscus. How all that affects the stability of the knee and the stress transferred to that fresh ACL graft is up to the great mind of Dr. Andrews to calculate and quantify.

Here’s something (without getting too nerdy) that is more science than art: ACL fixes are typically accomplished by harvesting part of the patient’s patella tendon. Well, you only have two of those, and since he shredded the graft from his right patella last January, RGIII’s fresh out of the orthopedist’s first option. Another ACL insult and the repair gets even more creative and the outcome extremely cloudy. So if you’re thinking long-term, if you want RGIII to be around for a decade or more, his latest knee rebuild, realistically, has to be his last.

Trusted Cabinet?

If you were Mike Shanahan, would you completely trust RGIII and the team doctor?

After RGIII does all his football drills, pre-game sprints and manipulations via the media, would you trust him if he told you his knee felt fine? Do you think, for one second, that RGIII would be honest and report any discomfort, any reluctance to make certain cuts? He was dishonest with Shanahan last winter. Has he given any indication that last season’s injury added a dash of discretion to his overwhelming competitiveness?

As Bo Didley sang in his brash song "Who do you love?", “I’m just 22 and I don’t mind dying.” Clearly RGIII’s not going to risk his life on a football field, but the verse captures the young hero’s willingness to play with reckless abandon and until his body literally breaks. It would be nearly as reckless for Shanahan to ignore that innate wiring while contemplating his “to play RGIII or not to play him” decision.

As for Dr. Andrews, the confounding and contradictory in-game medical protocol last season is well documented. Beyond that, this is a man whose agenda is advanced by RGIII posting for Week 1. This is his handiwork on display, after all. Andrews is also the same guy that consistently cleared RGIII to play last season, only to leak quotes like “I’ve been a nervous wreck letting him come back…” and “he’s still recovering and I’m holding my breath because of it” in a USA Today piece released the day of the fateful Seattle playoff game. I know it seems ludicrous to question the renowned athlete re-builder, but this is an abnormal head coach/franchise player/team doctor relationship. The latter two have proven adept at returning the player to the field quickly and hedging that decision or deflecting blame when something goes awry.

If you’re Shanahan, are you going to buy what both RGIII and Andrews will ultimately say: that the quarterback is ready to play against Philly?

All For One And One For All

Here’s another angle to consider while you’re playing the role of Mike Shanahan: you’ve spent four years building a roster and preaching the concept of the “next man up” being ready to perform. True to that formula, you burned a fourth-round pick on Kirk Cousins to create depth at quarterback and watched him fill in admirably for RGIII last season. So, assuming he’s over the foot injury sustained in the second preseason game, what is the reluctance to lean on Cousins to start the season? In Week 1 through 4, the ‘Skins play Philadelphia, Green Bay, Detroit and Oakland — hardly a brutal stretch. It is reasonable to assume that Cousins can win at least two of those games. With a bye in week five, starting Cousins in the first four games would give RGIII six additional weeks to heal.

Would sitting a medically-cleared RGIII infuriate the young quarterback? Sure, but he’d get over it quickly — he really has no choice. If Cousins fell flat on his face (unlikely), calling RGIII’s number would be far more justified. Conversely, if Cousins plays lights out and RGIII struggles upon his return, could an unintended quarterback controversy be created? Yes, but that’s the good type of quarterback controversy; splitting hairs between Rex Grossman and John Beck is not.

A Division Lacking Dominance

Statement of the obvious: the NFC East lacks a dominant force. The NFL is inarguably unpredictable, but no team in the division appears capable of winning more than ten or eleven games. In fact, the last time that happened was in 2008 when the Giants won twelve. Last year the ‘Skins were 3-6 after nine games and still took the crown after ripping off seven straight wins.

The point is all indications are the NFC East title is another race to nine or ten wins — something the ‘Skins certainly can do even if RGIII doesn’t play until mid-October. Further, it is a division begging for a new lead dog. The Cowboys are an annual soap opera, the Giants are an enigma and the Eagles are a complete mystery. The ‘Skins, with RGIII and a completely reconstructed roster and better overall financial health courtesy of Shanahan and Bruce Allen, have a shot to emerge as the team to beat for the next five years — but only if a certain quarterback remains healthy.

Sprint To The Finish

The path to a Super Bowl championship used to include securing a first-round playoff bye week, the best conference record and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. That has all changed. Now the formula is about punching any playoff ticket and being the healthiest and hottest team at the end of the season — see the Packers in 2011, the Giants in 2012 and the Ravens last February. Washington’s late season run last year peaked too early and was undone by injury. Sitting RGIII to begin the season would help avoid repeating that scenario and increases the likelihood that the ‘Skins are the team sizzling through the dead of winter.

Decision Time

So if I was Mike Shanahan on Sept. 9, what would I do? Well, add it all up and I’d start Cousins for the first four weeks of the season — the six additional weeks of rest is too juicy of a carrot to ignore. To hell with RGIII’s ego and the game that it might cost me in the standings.

This is the biggest decision facing the franchise since pulling the trigger on the trade to land the kid in the first place. I’d have confidence in the other 52 guys on the roster and in Cousins, specifically.

I’d give RGIII’s knee that extra month and a half to heal both for the sake of his long-term health and, considering my justifiable distrust of the team doctor and my ultra-competitive quarterback, my professional reputation. I’d also recognize that RGIII isn’t Tom Brady or Carson Palmer, two other quarterbacks that returned from serious knee injuries, in that my quarterback isn’t a pocket statue. He is an athletic force who will roam into the teeth of the defense no matter what schematic protection I order my son to implement.

Overall, the criticism of sitting him is less than the job-threatening and potentially career-ending heat I’d get if he were re-injured early in the season. But, politics of the situation aside, it just seems like the most prudent decision. True, you can’t coach or play with fear, but as head coach you also can’t be hasty. The mistake last season was acting with regretful urgency. We all wanted RGIII to be available and lead the team to victory against Seattle. I bought off on what he and the medical staff said he could do (continue to play on an obviously wounded knee) instead of dictating what should have been done (pulling him out of the game).

My number one responsibility as head coach is to win games, but 1A is handling this tremendous player and franchise asset with care. By Week 6 of the season, the perception and reality would be that I, Mike Shanahan, did everything I could do to ensure The Franchise was healthy, not just for 2013, but for the next decade. That’s what I’d do.

And you?

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