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The RG III-Steven Strasburg Comparison

Thomas Boswell in the Washington Post compares the Washington Nationals’ treatment of young pitching star Stephen Strasburg with the Washington Redskins treatment of young quarterbacking sensation Robert Griffin, III. In case you have been vacationing in Mongolia, the Redskins created quite a controversy by not pulling Griffin, who was playing on a damaged knee, from their playoff game against Seatle even after he was hobbling visibly and throwing ineffectively. Eventually, Griffin collapsed in a heap on a key play, and now has undergone serious knee surgery. The Nationals, by contrast, stopped using Strasburg during their push for the championship based on advice that if he continued to pitch he might damage his healthy throwing arm, given previous surgery on it.

Boswell argues that the difference in the treatment of Strasburg and Griffin reflects “differences in team building philosophy, in treatment [and] preservation of assets, and in basic ethical behavior.

Is Boswell right? I think in general he is, but probably overstates his case.

For one thing, the difference in the treatment of Strasburg and Griffin may also reflect differences between baseball and football. The warrior mentality, strong in both sports, is transcendent in football. This may help explain why Redskins coach Mike Shanahan was so reluctant to pull his star quarterback, who insisted he was good-to-go and who had led the Redskins to victory in several games in which he was also hobbled, without suffering apparent physical damage.

This is not to deny that Shanahan made a poor decision by leaving Griffin in the line of fire after he hobbled to the sidelines on a nine yard run on a second-half play. In light of that play and the inaccuracy of Griffin’s passing, it seemed clear that something was very wrong with his already injured knee.

Not to pull Griffin at that point was an error and probably a foolish one. But to suggest it was unethical, absent evidence that one of the respected doctors on the sidelines told Shanahan he should pull Griffin, goes too far. In my view, Shanahan is guilty only of poor judgment — probably the result of excessive faith in the exceptional qualities of his quarterback-protege and being caught up in the moment.

Turning to the Nationals, to compare their decision to shut Strasburg down with the Redskins decision to leave Griffin in against Seattle is too slanted in the baseball team’s favor. A proper comparison between the Nationals and the Redskins would focus not on Shanahan’s decision during the playoff game, but on his decision to use Griffin after his initial injury during the regular season in a game against Baltimore. Had they employed the Nationals philosophy, the Redskins would not have risked Griffin after that point, just as the Nats didn’t risk using Strasburg when it received a yellow flag, as opposed to a red one.

Should the Redskins have followed the Strasburg model and sidelined Griffin for what remained of the season following the Baltimore game? Perhaps. Did Boswell urge them to do so? I don’t know. Did I favor this? Not at the time. To have ended Griffin’s season then would have seemed excessively cautious, just as the decision to shut Strasburg down strikes many fans.

If the Redskins had ended Griffin’s season at that point, they probably would not have made the playoffs. His replacement, Kirk Cousins, was good enough to lead them to victory against Cleveland and could have done so against Philadelphis. But I don’t think the Skins would have beaten Dallas without Griffin.

So in an apples-to-apples comparison, the Nationals reduced their chances of advancing in the playoffs in order to protect Strasburg and their investment in him. The Redskins were not similarly moved to reduce their chances of advancing to the playoffs.

The rest of the story remains to play out. Will Strasburg remain healthy, or did the Nationals hurt their 2012 championship prospects for naught? Will Griffin recover fully from surgery and avoid reinjury, or has the player’s career been impaired?

Regardless of the answers, the two clubs did make different choices. Neither club should be happy about the way their decision played out in the 2012 season, although neither club will admit that they aren’t.

But, yes, the Nationals put a higher premium on the long term and on the physical well-being of their star, while the Redskins put a higher premium on winning now.

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