The last time the Washington Redskins had a franchise quarterback was… [checks notes] never.* They've had good quarterbacks before, but they've never had a guy who was the guy. Even Joe Gibbs, who coached three Washington teams to Super Bowl wins in a 10-season span, did it with Joe Theismann, Doug Williams and Mark Rypien.
* At least not in the modern era. Sorry, Sammy Baugh fans!
Now, for the first time, the Redskins have a legitimate top guy with Robert Griffin, III. Griffin is the kind of player who could be the best player in the NFL. So how did the Redskins handle that kind of promise? They broke him. They put him in a situation where it was easy to get hurt, and he got hurt. Then they played him while he was injured. Then, in the playoffs, they did it all again. The result was a torn knee, Griffin's second in four seasons.
But that's all in the past. The goal now must be not to repeat past mistakes. The Redskins have to do everything they can to keep Robert Griffin healthy in this and subsequent season, but if recent history is any indication, that may not happen.
Redskins personnel decisions have been a league-wide punching bag for a long time. Like a goldfish, the shiny new toy distracted them. Flashy guys and quick fixes easily took them in. That approach isn't guaranteed to fail, but even if it doesn't result in the roster equivalent of an egg microwaved for five minutes, it isn't a solid foundation for building a franchise.
Then came the offseason of 2012, when the team traded three first-round draft picks for the No. 2 pick in the draft. At a quick glance, this move appeared to be in the same reactionary, quick-fix vein; grab the hot, young quarterback, and all will be solved. Who cares if it costs all the draft picks in the world, because oooh, shiny quarterback …
You have to give the Redskins credit, though. It's one thing to finish with a horrendous record the season before Peyton Manning is available in the draft. That's just good fortune. It's quite another thing to see Manning, evaluate him, decide he's the guy you want to center the next decade of your franchise around, and then trade three first-round picks for the guy. That's what the Redskins did with Griffin. They found their guy, and they spent what it took to get him, even if it seemed an exorbitant cost at the time.
Then, they broke him. I went back and watched a few Redskins games from last season, and even in their wins, Griffin took a beating. He even was picked up and slammed to the grass. I was waiting for someone to come off the sidelines and clothesline him with a folding chair. And by the way, when was the last time you remember Tom Brady getting picked up and body slammed?
The beatings continued, and it didn't take too long until a serious injury resulted. First came the concussion he sustained in the team's loss to Atlanta. Griffin didn't miss a game, playing the next week against Minnesota. Then, eight weeks later (including the bye week), Griffin's knee was hit by Ravens nose tackle Haloti Ngata. Replay showed his lower leg kicking forward, independent of the upper leg -- in a word, gross. Griffin received medical attention on the field, so he was required by rule to miss a play, but he was back in after just that one play. The team actually let him back in the game!
He missed the next game against Cleveland, but he was back a week after that against Philadelphia. He wasn't the same guy though. Much of his acceleration was gone, and his passing stats dropped. The story was the same in the finale against Dallas the following week. Then came the playoff game against Seattle. With just under seven minutes left, a clearly hobbled Griffin -- now with knee brace! -- was trying to bring his team back for the tying touchdown. Standing in the shotgun, the snap came in low and to his left. Griffin tried to plant his injured right leg to turn and get the ball, lost his balance, and on his next step with his left leg, his knee collapsed. He lay on the ground, helpless and in severe pain, as the Seahawks recovered the fumble, and any hopes the Redskins had of winning along with it.
By my count, that's a concussion and at least three different knee injuries, the final one requiring reconstruction surgery. That is how the Washington Redskins handled their most valuable possession, the guy they traded three first-round picks to get, the guy upon whom they were supposedly pinning their future success. They basically whacked him with a bat until he broke, which, you know if you passed first grade, isn't how we handle breakable things. So, class, how do we handle breakable things? Yes, Timmy, that's right: We handle breakable things carefully. Timmy would you mind repeating your answer to Mike Shanahan?
The thing about Griffin's injuries is that almost all of them were entirely preventable, if not on the field than in the coach's office. Each one except the last (where his knee was so far gone already that it couldn't handle him turning to his left) was a product of Griffin running in the open field when he easily could have reached the sidelines. The concussion came while Griffin was running down the sideline; he could have avoided contact there. The first knee injury came when Griffin ran to the sidelines and then ran back to the middle of the field.
Again, that's all in the past. Griffin suffered all those injuries, and there isn't anything the Redskins can do to get him to un-suffer them. What can be done is to fix the offense, fix the quarterback's mindset, and fix the head coach's priorities.
The Redskins offense is predicated on the threat of Griffin running. Even when he doesn't run, the other team has to account for the fact that he might. Since he's quite a runner, that threat carries weight and thus makes it easier to run other plays. While Griffin's running has been productive, the team might consider picking their spots a bit more, because the more Griffin runs, the more chances he has to make a mistake, and taking a hit he shouldn't. Take enough of those, and that's a career. What's more, it's not so much Griffin's running that makes the offense go, it's the threat of his running. As long as the threat exists (i.e., he runs occasionally and judiciously), other teams will still have to respect it.
Part of the problem lies with Griffin himself. He has to be smarter about when to stretch for an extra yard, and what possibilities exist when he eschews the sideline and turns back into the interior of the field. That said, Griffin is 23 years old. He feels invincible, as all 23-year-olds feel, and maybe more than most considering who he is and what he's doing. The responsibility to keep players healthy, to the extent that anyone can do that in today's NFL, falls on the head coach. The head coach has to impress upon Griffin that looking out for his health isn't just something you do, it's his job, and the only way he'll ever win a championship.
Beyond that, Mike Shanahan has to understand Griffin's value to the team, to Griffin himself, and to Shanahan's career. He doesn't need to treat Griffin with kid gloves, but he does need to avoid heaping undue risks upon his young quarterback. At least twice last season, Griffin came back from an injury more quickly than he should have. Hindsight is perfect, granted, but the head coach should be cautious with his franchise player if for no other reason than his in that quarterback's ligaments, tendons and sinews rest the coach's own continued employment. When he gets hit in the knee, and his foot kicks forward without his thigh moving, maybe that's a good time to not play football. Just as a random example.
For the first time in decades, the Redskins' future is bright, but it isn't bright because the team has done a great job of building a solid foundation of talent through the draft or hit the mother lode in free agency. The future is bright because Robert Griffin, III plays quarterback. If he can't do that, you can downgrade the future by more than a few shades of brightness. So, in addition to winning football games, here's another goal for the 2013 Washington Redskins to embrace: keep your starting quarterback upright for a full 16 games. A football field is a rough place, but in the modern game, it's the smart teams that are winning more often than not. The Redskins finally have someone great. Let's see if they're smart enough not to keep breaking him.