A silly quarterback controversy

Since the days of Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer, the Washington Redskins (as they were then known) have had plenty of quarterback controversies. Doug Williams or Jay Schroeder; Jeff George or Tony Banks; Donovan McNabb or Rex Grossman; Robert Griffin or Kirk Cousins, etc.

Now, the team has a new quarterback controversy: Dwayne Haskins or random replacement player.

Here’s the story: The Redskins (as they were then known) drafted Haskins in the first round of the 2019 draft. This was the owner’s decision. The club’s football people didn’t want to select Haskins, but Daniel Snyder did.

Haskins struggled in 2019 and struggled early in 2020, as well. He struggled so much that the team’s new coach, Ron Rivera, not only benched him but relegated him to third string.

But then, the team’s other two quarterbacks, Kyle Allen and Alex Smith, were injured. Allen is out for the season. Smith, who recently recovered from an injury that nearly cost him his leg, is recovering from his latest, far less serious, injury. However, he probably won’t be ready to play this Sunday.

Smith’s injury opened the door for Haskins’ return from exile. His play in the game and a half since he took the helm hasn’t been particularly good, but it’s an improvement over how he performed before. He gives the team a chance to win if our defense plays well.

Why, then, the controversy? Haskins should take the field on Sunday by default, right?

The problem is that Haskins violated the league’s coronavirus protocols. After last week’s game, he went to a restaurant and then to a club. (Initial reports said he partied at a strip club, but now it’s been reported that he partied with his girlfriend and others at a hotel.) Haskins did not wear a mask and apparently did not maintain the mandated social distances.

How seriously should we take these violations? On the one hand, Haskins’ behavior doesn’t differ much from that of any number of public officials who have ignored similar rules or guidelines — ones that in some cases they helped set.

On the other hand, the NFL’s rules are the rules. They should be followed.

Moreover, the rules are there are for a reason. The NFL is desperate to complete its season in the midst of a pandemic. When a player unnecessarily assumes a risk, even a small one, of contracting and then spreading the virus, he puts his team and the league in jeopardy.

Haskins violated the rules and assumed that risk. Clearly, he had to be punished. The question is what his punishment should be.

Coach Rivera decided to strip Haskins of his team captaincy. This was a no-brainer. It’s a wonder that Haskins was ever named captain to begin with.

Rivera also fined Haskins $40,000. I assume that Haskins, even on his rookie salary, can pay the fine without hardship. Still, it’s reportedly the heaviest fine yet levied on an NFL player for violating the league’s coronavirus rules.

To me, this is punishment that fits the “crime.” But to many of the professional scolds who cover sports in Washington, D.C., it’s not enough. They want Haskins to be benched on Sunday, if not cut from the team altogether.

The refrain is that Ron Rivera was brought in to change the team’s “culture” which, under Snyder, has been wanting for more than two decades. Rivera has often talked about changing the culture, and Haskins’ case gave him a chance to prove this isn’t just talk.

By benching or cutting Haskins, the thinking goes, Rivera could send a message that knucklehead behavior won’t be tolerated. By playing Haskins on Sunday, as Rivera plans to do, he sends the opposite message.

Benching Haskins sounds good in theory. The problem is that (1) the team has no other plausible quarterback option and (2) the team is in contention for the top spot in the weak NFC East, and thus for a home playoff game.

Assuming Smith can’t go on Sunday, who would replace Haskins in a game that could determine whether the team makes the playoffs? Probably Taylor Heinicke. He hasn’t played an NFL game since 2018. Washington brought him in a few weeks ago to be their quarantine quarterback. He has thrown only 58 passes as a pro.

The other possibility is Stephen Montez. Unlike Heinicke, Montez has been on the team’s practice squad all season. However, he has never played a down of NFL football. The notion of starting either Heinicke or Montez over Haskins in a game with playoff implications strikes me as irrational.

The goal of professional football team is to win. The cultural goal is to build a culture of winning.

Benching Haskins in favor of a nonentity would be a cultural disaster. Dozens of Washington players have busted their guts trying to put this team back in the playoffs. Some, maybe most, have played through physical pain and injury to accomplish this.

Benching Haskins in favor of Heinicke or Montez would amount to a betrayal of these players and their sacrifices. A loss under these circumstance would likely undermine Rivera’s standing with the team.

There are, of course, situations in which winning must take a back seat to other considerations. If Haskins had committed a heinous crime, losing his captaincy and paying a heavy fine wouldn’t be punishment enough. But Haskins didn’t.

It’s easy for Washington Post sportswriters and radio talk show hosts to urge the benching of Haskins. They aren’t in the business of winning football games.

Rivera is. That’s how he is judged by his employer and his players. It’s how he will be judged by Post sportswriters and radio talk show hosts, at the end of the day. And it’s how he should be judged.

Rivera retains the option of cutting Haskins when the season is over. Maybe he should, based on the quarterback’s performances and his immaturity.

For now, however, Rivera should keep playing Haskins until he has a healthy quarterback who can step in and play at Haskins’ level or better.