Washington's season started with Robert Griffin III celebrating while he was laying flat on the turf. It ended on Sunday night with Griffin writhing in the same position.
Should Griffin have stayed in after suffering what appeared to be a re-tweak of his knee injury in the first quarter? The answer — both in the moment and after the fact — is no, but that's really two separate questions that produce a "no" for different reasons.
The first branch of that question is, "Did Robert Griffin give the Redskins the best chance to win after suffering his knee injury on that second touchdown drive?" The answer to that question is no, because Griffin quickly revealed himself to be a much different player from even the limited Griffin of the past few weeks. After that drive, Griffin looked labored in moving around the pocket and downright wounded when the Redskins cruelly called a zone read and Griffin swept left for a nine-yard gain.
What was more noticeable was how little Griffin offered as a passer. His mechanics were clearly out of whack: He wasn't able to step into his throws and plant, turning the normally accurate Griffin into a scattershot passer. He sailed many of his throws, an issue that often comes into play with quarterbacks who aren't able to execute their footwork properly because of a lower-body injury. Ben Roethlisberger, for one, exhibited the same issues last year after suffering a high ankle sprain. The Redskins tried to account for the injury by calling for screens, quick hitches, and stick routes that didn't require Griffin to throw the ball any meaningful distance in the air, but the Seahawks were easily able to adapt without having any serious fear that Griffin would be able to beat them downfield.
You can forgive the Redskins for giving Griffin a drive or two to examine whether he would be able to contribute to the cause. You can't fault Griffin's guts for wanting to play, either. But it became clear no later than halftime that Griffin was more than limited; he was far below the level of a replacement-level quarterback, let alone at the level of a healthy Kirk Cousins. After the injury occurred, Griffin threw a four-yard touchdown pass to an uncovered Logan Paulsen, but he followed that by going 4-of-10 for 18 yards with an interception, two sacks, and a fumble on his final play of the season.
The second question is much thornier. "Were the Redskins making a decision that had Robert Griffin III's best interests in mind?" The process that went into leaving Griffin in is more complicated than that, and it speaks to just how seriously the league takes some very antiquated and foolish ideas. After the game, Mike Shanahan's press conference was a farce of the highest order. First, Shanahan went through the basic tenets of coach's privilege, one by one. He kept Griffin in the game because Griffin said he could go.1 He kept Griffin in because Griffin had "done enough this year to have that opportunity to stay in the football game." It moved to the disingenuous. He didn't think Griffin needed to come out because "a lot of guys are hurting this time of year," and Griffin " wasn't exactly the same [after the first quarter], but I have a lot of guys who aren't exactly the same," as if the typical wear and tear for a player somehow compared to the distress shown by Griffin, who was limping around the field and badly missing throws he would have comfortably made three hours prior. "After that first quarter, we just didn't seem to get things done," Shanahan said, as if there were no traumatic, game-changing event that materially affected the play on the field.
Griffin, for all his bravery, didn't offer much more in his press conference beyond the typical platitudes. He insisted that he'd been able to play and that he deserved to stay in the game because he was both the team's starting quarterback all season and the best option for them to win. The former is irrelevant; when Griffin suffered a more serious injury that forced him from the game, it's not like he stayed in the game because he was the team's starting quarterback all year. The latter simply isn't true, and while Griffin undoubtedly wanted badly to stay in the game and lead his team to a playoff victory, it shouldn't be his decision to make. He also suggested that the team "didn't execute as much as we did the first few drives," simply pretending that he was the same guy he had been during a raucous opening period.
It's a difficult decision that should involve input from the player and head coach before falling upon the shoulders of the medical staff. Shanahan, of course, had showed what little regard he had for the medical professionals on his sideline as recently as that morning. Sunday broke with the news that Dr. James Andrews hadn't cleared Robert Griffin to come back into the Week 14 game against the Ravens after suffering the initial knee injury, despite Mike Shanahan claiming otherwise as part of the justification for pushing RG3 back in for four plays. Shanahan pretended that there was a conversation with Andrews offering his consent for the move when Andrews noted that he had been shielded from evaluating Griffin by the head coach.
The medical staff — including Andrews — evaluated Griffin on Sunday after his injury and said that he was, according to the untrustworthy Shanahan, "fine to play," suggesting that the team had checked with the doctors to "ask them their opinion if we would be hampering his LCL or was he in good enough shape to go into the game and play at the level we need for him to win." It seems like an impossible argument to win. Griffin didn't have an MRI during the game or miss time until suffering his second knee injury of the day. He had a gigantic brace on his knee built specifically to support his LCL, so it's not a surprise that the doctors would suggest that LCL wouldn't be hampered. Even if Griffin was healthy enough to step back onto the field, the dramatic dip in his performance should have been enough to tip off a coach who's been around football for his entire life that something was wrong.
By treating Andrews as a pawn to win a press conference and then relying upon Griffin's evaluation of his own health as the ultimate measure of his ability to perform, the Redskins showed exactly how little they care about truly evaluating their quarterback's health. They turned the decision-making over to Shanahan, who would normally have the ability to make a tough decision that would be the best thing for his team and his star player, but Shanahan alternately allegedly lied and passed the buck to avoid making that tough decision. In a league that's waging an enormous fight against concussions, one that has actively needed to remove coaches and players from the equation out of the reality that they'll make decisions based on winning more than their own health, how can it still be acceptable in 2012 to use a player's intuition about his health in the middle of a playoff game as the justification of your decision? How is it still enough after series after series of sub-replacement play? Is it any surprise that Griffin said afterwards that, had Shanahan prevented him from playing, he "probably would have been right back there out on the field"? Why would Griffin have respect for the appropriate medical process in that situation? Shanahan doesn't.
Shanahan's story, in the end, saw him rely on that most tried-and-true coaching adage. "You've gotta go with your gut," Shanahan said. He might have thought about considering his eyes, too.
Oh, Also, Football
Between moments of great consternation, there was a wildly interesting football game on display between the Redskins and Seahawks on Sunday night. While it seems odd to give Seattle credit for adjusting over the final three quarters when they were really just dealing with a significantly damaged opposing offense, Russell Wilson and the Seahawks offense did an excellent job of moving the ball consistently on the Washington defense. After their first drive went three-and-out, Seattle produced four consecutive drives of 60 yards or more, but only managed to turn them into 13 points, as Washington came up with a key forced fumble on a Marshawn Lynch carry at the goal line to end the opening drive of the second half. And then, after looking wildly impressive for four consecutive drives, Wilson overthrew an open Doug Baldwin for a touchdown on second down and then took a Stafford2 to turn a would-be lead-taking field goal into a punting situation.
What's interesting about the Seattle offense is how it continues to grow from week to week. You would think that an offense would basically be defined and a playbook would mostly be locked as a team enters the playoffs, but the Seahawks have been introducing new wrinkles as the season goes along. One notable play on Sunday saw Russell Wilson line up for a zone read with Lynch next to him in the backfield, but when Wilson read his defender and decided to keep the ball, he eschewed the traditional sweep and power movements and instead basically ran a draw up the middle with Lynch as a lead blocker. Just another viable offshoot that the Seahawks will have in their pocket for their game against the league's 20th-ranked run defense next weekend.
Ray Rice is, by all accounts, a wonderful football player. I made the case before the season that he could be the best running back in football, and while that clearly ended up being Adrian Peterson and Rice ended up having a disappointing year in terms of workload, I don't think Rice is very far removed from the top. He is one of the most reliable, consistent players in the league in terms of both his availability and his production. Any team would want Ray Rice on their roster if they thought they had a decent shot at making their way to the Super Bowl.
Why, then, can't Ray Rice hold on to the ball in the playoffs? It's a bizarre problem for Rice, because he really doesn't have any issue dealing with fumbles during the regular season. In 1,527 regular-season touches during his career, Rice has just seven fumbles. That's an average of just over 218 touches per fumble for Rice during the first 16 games of the year. Rice's two fumbles against the Colts on Sunday brought him to five fumbles amid just 152 touches. That's one fumble every 30.4 touches. Rice has been more than seven times more likely to fumble in the playoffs than he has been during the regular season.
The odds of this happening are astronomical. If we assume that Rice's "true" fumble rate is his rate during the regular season, the odds that Rice would have five or more fumbles in 152 touches are an incredible 1,364 to 1. (The odds that he would have exactly five are 1,534 to 1.) So is there something innately wrong with Rice that causes him to fumble in the playoffs far more frequently than he does during the regular season?
I don't think so, no. There are players who have had these sorts of stretches before over the course of a season who have otherwise managed to avoid serious fumble issues during their careers. Take Willis McGahee, for example. Before he went down with an injury this year, McGahee touched the ball 193 times and fumbled five times, an average of one fumble every 38.6 touches. In his eight previous seasons as an NFL back, McGahee had fumbled once every 85.5 touches, nearly three times less frequently. McGahee's case isn't quite as extreme as Rice's, but if those fumbles came during the playoffs, we would be asking the same questions about McGahee's viability as we currently are about Rice. It's a problem of getting fooled by a small sample size.
If anything, I think the flip side of the argument is possible: Rice has been lucky to make it through so many regular-season touches with such a low fumble rate. Over the past five years, the average runner with 1,000 carries or more has fumbled once every 94.6 touches. Nobody's come close to matching Rice's fumble rate. In all likelihood, Rice's fumble rate will drop during the playoffs over the coming seasons, but his fumble rate during the regular season will rise.
Webb in Front
In all likelihood, Joe Webb never had a chance. When the Vikings shockingly revealed on Saturday afternoon that Christian Ponder was inactive for the game against Green Bay,3 the line in Vegas jumped from 7.5 points to 10.5 pretty quickly. Webb had received the first-team reps in practice while Ponder tried to rest his ailing elbow, but the reality was just that there wasn't enough to work with in the Minnesota offense for Webb to score on the road in frigid weather. Having Adrian Peterson is one thing, but throwing to a group of wideouts that includes Michael Jenkins, Jerome Simpson, and Jarius Wright as its primary weapons just isn't the recipe for matching touchdowns with Aaron Rodgers. Ponder was able to do it last week while Peterson had one of the best games of his life, and the Vikings were able to get out to an early lead without ever having to throw to catch up. This week, after going up 3-0, the Vikings weren't able to extend their lead and eventually gave up 24 points before answering.
It's no surprise that Minnesota's first drive of the game was its most successful until the game went into garbage time. That first drive probably included the plays that offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave threw into the opening script and practiced most frequently with Webb during the week. It included eight consecutive running plays, likely the plays that the Vikings would practice with Webb during the week if they ever wanted to install a package for him in the offense. Furthermore, Ponder had been very impressive on opening drives over the past several weeks. The only truly disconcerting thing early on was Webb's propensity to throw the ball up in the air in a panic while in the grasp of a defender on a pair of third-down plays.
Minnesota also seemed to change their defensive game plan after being shredded by Rodgers last week. They stayed in looks that were designed to induce run calls from Rodgers at the line of scrimmage while hoping that their front four would be able to contain DuJuan Harris. Instead, the Packers pieced together a nice drive for their first score that mostly consisted of runs and throws with Harris and the undead Ryan Grant. The Vikings adjusted, but that left Rodgers with time to attack them downfield and throw to his bevy of receivers. Green Bay barely used Randall Cobb after sitting Cobb with his ankle injury last week, but they didn't really need him. Rodgers went 11-of-16 for 163 yards on throws to his three other top wideouts.
Minnesota heads into the offseason with a year they can be proud of, but there are still plenty of questions they'll have to address. The team will have to give Ponder a third season to prove whether he's their quarterback of the future. He'll likely be throwing to Percy Harvin, who will be in the final year of his rookie contract, but Minnesota clearly needs to add another wideout to make teams pay for doubling Harvin and focusing their safeties on Peterson and Kyle Rudolph. I would normally say here that the Vikings can't count on another season like this one from Peterson, but after this year, it seems awful dim to put any ceiling on him.
Thank You for Not Coaching
There are times where I'm a little harsh on coaches who punt the ball away in the fourth quarter when they're losing by a significant margin. There is some small advantage to be gained by not risking your starting quarterback against pass rushers who can pin their ears back and just go after the quarterback all day. (Of course, you could also just take your quarterback out and solve that problem.) Strength of victory is also a tiebreaker that the NFL uses for positioning; it rarely comes into play, but you can still make a case that it might be better to punt down 24 points in the fourth quarter than to go for it on fourth-and-11.
What I don't understand, though, is how Leslie Frazier could decide that punting on fourth-and-2 from his own 17-yard line in the fourth quarter on Saturday made much sense. I can't pretend that his offense was doing very much, but with his team down 24-3 and less than 11 minutes left in his season, doesn't it seem logical to hand the ball to Adrian Peterson and see if the best running back in football can get two yards? I understand giving up and fighting another day in the regular season, even if I don't always like it, but this is the postseason! There isn't any tomorrow! I don't think the Vikings were about to come back and win, but 21 points isn't an insurmountable lead with 10:45 left; it's probably going to take a score on the drive in question and a return touchdown to get the Vikings within striking distance, but that's a risk you have to run in January.
Mike McCarthy pulled my least favorite challenge flag out of his pocket on Saturday night when he chose to challenge that DuJuan Harris broke the plane of the end zone with the football before he was down in the first quarter. It wasn't quite as bad as it could have been because a non-challenge would have given Green Bay second-and-goal from the 1-inch line as opposed to first-and-goal (which is truly my least favorite one), but it's pretty bad. Replays showed that Harris looked to be in, but it wasn't like he glided into the end zone and a ref decided to mark him down at the 1-inch line out of spite, either.
Unless it's a stone-cold lock, this is a bad challenge because you simply don't gain very much while eliminating flexibility later in the game with regard to making challenges. You put the points on the board, but you have at least two more plays to do that same thing, and teams score too frequently with those chances to make the challenge mean all that much.
Of course, when the Packers were unable to score with three chances on a first-and-goal from the 2-yard line in the second quarter, my Twitter feed blew up with people pointing out that the exact scenario I said doesn't play out very often had played out, and that the futility of the Green Bay offense near the goal line was enough that it behooved McCarthy to challenge. And that's a very generous writeup of what they said.
Now, it's true: That will happen sometimes, and it's no fun when you abandon the seven and don't get it. However, it's awful shortsighted to point out that example as a sign that Green Bay's offense couldn't get the inch they needed on the previous drive. For one, John Kuhn moved the ball forward almost a full yard on first down. That would have qualified as a touchdown. After that, Aaron Rodgers threw a pass that hit Jermichael Finley in the hands, only for a diving Finley to drop the pass. That's hardly an incompetent offensive series. (Kuhn would also score on a later drive on second-and-goal from the 3-yard line, a play that did not inspire outcome-driven tweets.)
Furthermore, is there really recent evidence that the Packers are an awful team in goal-to-go situations this year? Green Bay had the league's best DVOA in goal-to-go situations this year, at 81.8 percent. And according to pro-football-reference.com's essential play index, the Packers had four plays from the opposition's 1-yard line this year and scored on all four of them. They had six plays from the 2 and scored twice, scrambled once for a first down, came up short on one run, kneeled, and had Graham Harrell fumble on his first play after coming in off the bench. On plays for which Aaron Rodgers was in the game and the Packers were actually trying to score, they had eight plays from the 2-yard line and in and were unsuccessful once.
You'd argue that's a small sample, and I'd agree, but if you think that the failed series by the goal line on Sunday proves your point, you can't have it both ways and pretend that Green Bay's regular-season success doesn't matter. I don't think Green Bay is an excellent short-yardage offense near the goal line, but I also don't think they're terrible. Had they chosen to pass on the challenge and tried to score from the 1-inch line, I strongly suspect they would have scored without much trouble.