Robert Griffin III, other NFL players likely fearful of 'Jay Cutler' treatment

In January 2011, Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler sprained his MCL in the NFC championship game. Rather than stay in the locker room or head to the hospital, he stood on the sideline under a heavy coat and watched the Bears lose to the Green Bay Packers.

Doing so caused other NFL players to take to social media and rip him to shreds for his perceived lack of toughness.

"Cmon cutler u have to come back. This is the NFC championship if u didn't know," Arizona Cardinals safety Kerry Rhodes tweeted.

"All I'm saying is that he can finish the game on a hurt knee … I played the whole season on one," Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew concurred.

Arizona's Darnell Dockett said Cutler shouldn't be allowed to shower with his teammates after the game. Hall of Famer Deion Sanders blasted that "in the playoffs u must drag me off the field."

On and on it went, an avalanche of vitriol seen and read by every football fan in America. Presumably, that includes current Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, then a sophomore at Baylor University.

Or Griffin could've learned it himself through years of playing football, where the cart-me-off-the-field toughness is perhaps the most admired characteristic of the game.

Griffin buckled his previously injured right knee in the first quarter of the Redskins' 24-14 NFC wild-card loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. Yet he stayed in the game until he wound up in a heap with a more significant injury in the fourth quarter.

[Related: Concern over RG3's health shows how transcendent the rookie already is]

Afterwards, coach Mike Shanahan was asked: Isn't it code in the NFL for a starting quarterback to try and play through any injury, no matter how significant?

"I think so," he said. "It should be."

It should be?

"That's the type of player that you want and we understand that there's a fine line between being injured and hurt," Shanahan continued. "A lot of guys are hurting this time of year. They get hurt in game. You want your guy to be a leader."

Griffin underwent surgery Wednesday to repair his LCL and reconstruct a previously reconstructed ACL. It was deemed a success and while the road back is long and arduous, there is hope he doesn't miss a snap next season.

"We expect a full recovery and it is everybody's hope and belief that due to Robert's high motivation, he will be ready for the 2013 season," Dr. James Andrews said in a statement.

The blame for Griffin's injury – not to mention Washington's loss – has been thorough and pointed in many directions. Some of it has focused on Griffin. Much of it has gone the way of Shanahan, who should've pulled him if only because he was so ineffective [six series, 44 total yards, two turnovers following touchdown drives on the first two possessions] that he didn't give Washington the best chance of winning.

Whomever's fault it is [I'm in the Shanahan camp], what's worth remembering is that this isn't the same NFL as even a few years ago, the Cutler saga serving as a milestone moment.

Back then fellow players didn't even wait for Cutler's official medical report to slam him for a lack of courage. They saw him standing and presumed that if you can stand you can play. That's simply untrue.

Griffin certainly couldn't finish Sunday's game but afterwards he walked around the stadium with only a slight limp. And even after his media duties he didn't rush home or to a hospital. He stood visiting with family for at least 15 minutes in a FedEx Field loading dock.

Dressed to the nines, he only occasionally rubbed or flexed his knee as he casually chatted and even shared a laugh. If you didn't know he was injured, you probably wouldn't have been able to tell. He looked good.

That hardly matters though. The cautionary tale of Cutler is out there.

Shanahan kept saying the decision to pull Griffin or not was a "tough one" to make and that it's a "gut check." But he also kept taking the cop-out route of letting Griffin determine whether he was "just" hurt or truly injured.

"I talked to Robert the whole game, trying to get a gut, trying to let him know it is all right if he was injured," Shanahan said Sunday. "There's nothing wrong with that but you have to do what's right for the football team."

[Related: When will RG3 return from extensive knee injury?]

The problem with that reasoning is that demands a level of extreme maturity, experience and even humility. After the game linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said something similar, expressing that he would never criticize a player for opting out for being injured or admitting they weren't the best option. He also praised Griffin's heart and warrior's determination though.

It's all a mixed message and one that can't really be solved.

It's one thing to say that everyone would understand a player saying he was injured. That isn't nearly the same kind of emotion as hailing profound toughness or being known as someone willing to nearly die on the field. One is acceptance. The other is extreme praise.

Shanahan is the 60-year-old veteran coach who is paid a reported $7 million to manage a game, determine who can and can't play, provide the best opportunity for his team to win and, in the end, protect the health of the franchise quarterback.

In the end, this was his failure.

He was especially naive in falling back on a trust in the self-determination of a player, especially these days with a 22-year-old, eager-to-please rookie.

[Dan Wetzel: What was Mike Shanahan thinking playing RG3?]

The ability of social media to allow a guy's peers to vent has to be in the back of everyone's mind. This isn't the old media world. Today it's shoot first, criticize first and define a man's heart immediately. The facts can come later.

And the harshest criticism isn't coming from bombastic radio talk show hosts or snarky columnists, whose opinions can be easily brushed off as ill-informed. It's from other NFL players themselves. And that stings.

No player wants to be Jay Cutler. The idea of eight months of rehab and a return to play with who knows what kind of mobility is more appealing than that.

Being defined a wimp who doesn't care and thus shouldn't be allowed to shower with the true players is a label that hurts more than any surgical knife. And the scar lasts about as long.

In today's NFL, it may take more courage to say I'm injured than to just be injured and take the beating in the way that a perceived real man would.

That's what Mike Shanahan and his fellow coaches need to forever understand. This is a cruel new world.

NFL video from Yahoo! Sports:

Other popular content on the Yahoo! network:
Seahawks QB Russell Wilson almost played for the Colorado Rockies
Hall of Fame rejection of PED-era players reveal outdated ideals
GrindTV: Mysterious headless fish baffles experts