The subject at his media conference on Wednesday was his decision to bench franchise quarterback Robert Griffin III for the remainder of this season, but the underlying takeaway was far more significant: how Griffin's injury in a playoff game against Seattle changed his relationship with the quarterback and may have ruined his tenure in Washington.
Shanahan confessed his gut told him to pull the injured quarterback at halftime of the Redskins' home playoff loss, no matter what the doctors and Griffin told him. He said he wanted to "kick myself in the rear" when Griffin's knee buckled after the coach decided to keep him on the field. He admitted he regretted going against his instinct.
"I knew in my gut, because I watched him, that's what I should have done," Shanahan said. "Because I watched it. I should have went with my gut.
"It cost us the game. Not only did it hurt Robert; it hurt us."
Ever since that game, throughout Griffin's offseason rehab from ACL surgery, there has been second-guessing of Shanahan's decision, second-guessing of Griffin's mindset, and second-guessing of the entire direction of the Redskins' franchise. Did the coach do the right thing for the team? Or was he serving himself? Did the quarterback do the right thing for the team? Or was he serving himself?
Those questions still linger, resurfacing every time either one of them says a word in public. They resurfaced Wednesday. Shanahan's logic in benching Griffin for the rest of the season would make perfect sense in any other setting: the quarterback is the future, and he has no business getting sacked again and again in meaningless games – especially after two ACL surgeries. But the theories behind the decision show a lack of faith in the coach: he's trying to get himself fired; he's tired of dealing with Griffin; he wants to show, through backup Kirk Cousins, that Griffin has been doing more harm than good.
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Griffin's reaction to the benching, similarly, would be accepted or praised in any other situation: he wants to play; he's a competitor. But after rushing back to make the season opener and then struggling to reach the levels of his rookie season, it's easy to wonder if Griffin is determined to lead a team or simply to preserve his image.
They both might be doing the right thing, and they both might be doing the selfish thing. But after what happened in that playoff game, it's impossible to have faith in both men the way a franchise needs faith in both the coach and the quarterback to succeed.
So one of them must go. Ultimately, both of them might have to go.
The breakdown of trust and performance has been staggering. Last season, Griffin had it all figured out. The trust in him from receivers, staff, the owner, and fans was implicit. One of his signature moments came when he led a game-winning drive in Tampa even though his in-helmet audio had been cut. What should have been a helpless moment from a rookie quarterback became another chapter in a legendary start. The vibe in the locker room afterward was complete calm: Griffin knew he had it all along, and his receivers did too.
Contrast that to the vibe in the locker room after one of this season's 10 losses: a Sunday night defeat in Dallas. Griffin sat at his locker with his head bowed, checking his phone. His receivers were at their lockers, choosing their words carefully or choosing not to speak at all. Things got worse from there, and by the time the Redskins appeared on "Monday Night Football" against San Francisco, a quarterback who had been a pleasure to see was painful to watch. Griffin got hurried, sacked, and forced into bad decisions. A man who could create pain anywhere on the field now got hemmed into his own little box of agony. Instead of passing and rushing yards, analysts were counting the times Griffin got knocked down and how many times he got helped up by teammates. Was Griffin holding the ball too long, causing his own problems? A reporter asked that very question of Shanahan on Wednesday.
"That's what you'd like to know," the coach said.
Again, he may have meant that genuinely. You'd like to know if Griffin needs to get rid of the ball quicker instead of trying to create a highlight on every snap. That's the lesson Cam Newton has learned going from a dreadful second year to a terrific third year. There's no reason Griffin can't do the same, especially with the extended offseason Shanahan is giving him.
But now that the trust is broken, Shanahan's answer can be interpreted as a way of redirecting blame to the quarterback. "That's what you'd like to know," because Griffin has to be the hero. "That's what you'd like to know," because I can't be the executive when he's on the field freelancing and the owner is more of a fan than a clear-headed businessman.
Part of the reason trust has been broken is because neither man has absorbed enough blame. It sure doesn't look like Shanahan knows how to take advantage of one of the game's great talents. Sometimes Griffin is a runner, and sometimes he's a passer, and the coach looks about two decades behind in figuring out how to get the most out of a new-age quarterback. Shanahan hasn't owned that. Meanwhile, Griffin has been hemmed in because defenses are putting a spy on him, holding the edges to contain him, and he's not making them pay in other ways. Griffin looks about two games behind in figuring out how to react to a new age defense. He hasn't owned that.
What we're left with is what we had Wednesday: two men pleading their case to the world and neither coming across as completely sincere. Shanahan even went so far as to tell the media, "I'm trying to be as honest as I can; I don't normally do that."
Cousins, when asked if he was promoted because he was the best quarterback for the job right now, could only say, "I don't know."
Nobody knows anything. We could have two men who want to be Redskins for life, and we could have two men who want nothing more than to prove the other guy wrong. The fact that we don't know says everything about the current situation.
That memorable press conference could be the last one Shanahan gives as Redskins coach. It's possible he was so strident and "honest" because he knew it might be the last chance to state his case.
Whatever Shanahan's legacy in Washington, Griffin's is still being written. The trade for him with the St. Louis Rams – a defining moment in the team's history – will likely cost the Redskins a high draft pick in April. The pressure on him will be even higher than it was entering this season. Griffin will come back fresher and healthier next season, ready to follow Newton's comeback trail. But he will have to rehabilitate trust as quickly as he rehabilitated the knee he injured on that cold night in January.
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