My Kingdom for a Knee

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As Robert Griffin III reached down to pick up the botched snap, his already-braced right knee buckled, he fell to the ground, and we knew it was over.

Stephen Strasburg

2012 had been a rough year for sports in Washington DC, and 2013 wasn’t starting off any better. John Wall had yet to play a game for the lowly Wizards due to a knee injury. Beloved Capitals star Alex Ovechkin was playing for his hometown Dynamo Moscow of the KHL during the seemingly unending NHL lockout. And the perpetually basement-dwelling Washington Nationals had finished the season with the best record in baseball, only to lose a brutal five-game series to the reigning champion St. Louis Cardinals in the most heartbreaking fashion imaginable, by blowing a 6-0 lead. To add insult to injury, they did it while their ace pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, sat on the sidelines and watched helplessly having been shut down by the staff after reaching his medically imposed innings limit a year after undergoing Tommy John surgery. DC was enraged with the decision, and the National’s post mortem involved a lot of finger pointing at General Manager Mike Rizzo for costing the Nats a chance at the World Series.

Three months later, the people of DC were pointing fingers again, this time at Redskins coach Mike Shanahan. Why had he let Griffin play? Why hadn’t he taken him out earlier in the game when it was clear he was laboring? Why not trust the play of backup Kirk Cousins whose heroics against Baltimore and Cleveland kept the Redskins’ playoff hopes alive?

In both cases, the questions being asked by the fans were not unreasonable ones. But the moral of the stories is that winning results in a lot of back-patting, while losing results in a lot of finger pointing.

So who was right? Would the Nationals be preparing to defend their World Series in April had they allowed Strasburg to pitch? Maybe, but I tend to doubt it. Some people point to the game three loss and say that if Strasburg had been in the rotation, Edwin Jackson wouldn’t have been pitching. This is true, but they lost 8-0, and even the Nolan Ryans and Greg Maddoxes of this world don’t win too many games when their team doesn’t score.

I admit that I would have loved having Strasburg on the roster for the playoffs. And the team was undoubtedly better with him in the rotation. But his consistency was starting to slip late in the year. He threw more balls, walked more batters, and gave up 13 runs in just 26 innings pitched over the course of his final five starts. Along with basically every other Nationals fan out there, I didn’t want to see Stras shut down, but only time will deliver a verdict on the move by Mike Rizzo. If the Nationals win a World Series and Stephen Strasburg goes on to have a long and productive career, people will look back and credit a smart, forward thinking decision by the organization early on to protect the young pitcher. If the Nats never sniff another run at a title and Strasburg re-injures his arm, fans will forever lament that we wasted our best chance in the year where everything came together.

Mike ShanahanIn Redskinland, the consequences of starting and continuing to play an injured RG3 are already a bit clearer. This week, Griffin will have surgery on his right ACL and LCL, and there is an 8-9 month recovery period following the procedure. It’s a no win scenario for Mike Shanahan, because the Redskins blew the 14-0 lead and lost the game anyway. He is left only with “what ifs” regarding Kirk Cousins, and his prayers that RG3 comes back the same player he was before. While Shanahan lies awake at night, he would be well served to let visions of Adrian Peterson dance in his head.

The situations are difficult to compare because the sports are very different. Baseball teams can build dynasties and plan for the future, whereas football is very much a win now sport where getting into the playoffs in consecutive years is difficult enough, much less repeating as a Super Bowl winner. If Strasburg lost the ability to pitch, it would be a huge blow to the Nationals, but it wouldn’t cripple them. Take Tom Brady off of the Patriots or Peyton Manning off of the Broncos, and both teams are probably at home watching the playoffs.

No decision of this magnitude is ever cut and dry, but while the future may prove Mike Rizzo a genius, the best Mike Shanahan can hope for is to be absolved by it. We Nationals fans still haven’t gotten over the loss to the Cardinals in October, and we won’t anytime soon. And plenty are still steamed over the decision to sit Strasburg. But I say Mike Shanahan should take a lesson from Rizzo in the future and err on the side of safety with his franchise player.

Or at least stop letting him run so much.


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