There have been worse bosses, I suppose, than Dan Snyder. Leona Helmsley comes to mind, as do Richard Nixon and Mr. Burns from “The Simpsons.” Grudgingly, we should respect him for increasing the value of the Washington Redskins to $1.7 billion, third-highest in the NFL, part of a charmed financial life that saw him make his first million before his 21st birthday.
But let me be clear when I say no owner in American sports is a bigger buffoon. Whether it’s ridiculously overpaying for players and coaches, angering Native Americans who resent his arrogant attitude about the raging nickname debate, intimidating local media outlets that don’t pay for access, suing longtime season-ticket holders short of money during the recession and acting like a frathouse fanboy while obsessing over his team, Snyder is a lout. If he was successful, maybe his act might be tolerated, but in his 15 years, the Redskins have had more coaches (seven) than winning seasons (four). They’re a collective 104-133 in that span, leading to the conclusion that everyone and everything he touches as a football man turns to you-know-what.
Including Mike Shanahan.
Including Robert Griffin III.
What appeared to be a gift from the gods — RG3, supposedly the preeminent artist of the dual-threat quarterbacking era, flashing an affability and intellect that made him the most important young athlete in America — sadly has deteriorated this year into a debacle ugly and political even by D.C. standards. The alliance could not be worse between a petulant and impulsive owner, a world-weary old-school coach and a big-headed rising star who rushed back too quickly from a career-threatening knee injury — caused, in part, because he argued to stay in a postseason game while playing on one leg and wasn’t rebuffed by Shanahan. Since that fateful January day, Griffin has shockingly regressed into a turnover-prone, sack-ravaged shell of his former self, with surgery robbing him of his dazzling footwork and improvisational skills and leaving his once-steely confidence in tatters. RG3 now is described in demeaning ways — RG3-10 (the team’s record) and RG3rd-and-10 (the usual offensive predicament) — and like any Washington institution in crisis, fingers are pointing.
The flames started when some of Griffin’s teammates criticized him for refusing to take blame and finding others at fault. By Sunday, the building was burning down. That’s when ESPN — a network where Shanahan’s confidante, reporter Adam Schefter, is an NFL insider — reported that Shanahan was ready to quit last season because Snyder was giving too much preferential treatment to Griffin and empowering a mere rookie. Schefter didn’t break the story, but in ESPN’s world, conflicts of interest are avoided by simply planting the information with another in-house reporter — in this case, Dan Graziano. It seemed a ploy by Shanahan to provoke Snyder into firing him for two reasons: (1) So he could collect the remaining $7 million left on a contract that expires after next season; and (2) So he could pursue the head-coaching vacancy with the Houston Texans.
Oh, he’s going to be fired at season’s end, make no mistake. But the Texans want no part of him — owner Bob McNair said so Monday, dropping the preferred names of former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith and Stanford coach David Shaw — and, really, why would they? At 61 going on 70, Shanahan is 24-37 in Washington and is long past his NFL heyday, when he and an aging John Elway teamed up for two Super Bowl championships in Denver. Once a boy coaching wonder, he now must face reality that the pro game has passed him by. Last year, he and son Kyle, the offensive coordinator, maximized a healthy and vibrant Griffin via the zone-read option. The scheme largely has been reduced to a fad this season by plotting defensive coordinators — also see: Kaepernick, Colin — and without his old mobility, Griffin has been sacked 38 times (24 in the last five games).
Monday, with the Washington press corps firing questions about his relationship with Snyder as if they were covering an important state department briefing, Shanahan dropped his own bombshell: He might sit Griffin for the season’s final three games to protect his body from further beatings, which contradicts his recent statement that Griffin needs as much work as possible to hone his lost passing skills.
Assessing Griffin as “100 percent healthy,” which was surprising in itself, Shanahan said he is conferring with Snyder about replacing Griffin with the capable Kirk Cousins. “We talked about Robert,” Shanahan said. “He asked me about my relationship with Robert, and I said I was his head football coach and not necessarily his best friend. I don’t need to be his best friend. I want to make him the best quarterback possible, and we can get through relationships and all those type of things. We talked about the hits that he’s had. Do we put him in a position of getting injured, and is it worth the risk for the Washington Redskins and the future of our organization? That’s what we’re talking about.”
Whoa, there. By benching him, don’t you risk losing Griffin — and any chance of returning as coach — for good? “I’ve got to do what’s best for the organization,” Shanahan said. “If we feel the best thing is doing that for Robert, then, hopefully, he’ll understand why we’re doing it. We’re doing it because he’s a franchise quarterback and we want him to be able to go into the offseason and get full preparations and be ready for next year rather than playing one of the next three games and, all of a sudden, he sets himself back with a possible injury, whatever that may be.”
As for the ESPN story that he almost quit last season, Shanahan fell short of shooting it down. Like any D.C. politico, he made us read between the lines. “When I read it, they talked about me cleaning out my office. It’d take me two minutes to clean out my office,” he said. “I’ve got two notebooks and I’ve got an iPad. That would get me out of my office. When I hear things like that, I just shake my head.”
But is his relationship with Snyder beyond repair? “I’m not going to go into detail about our relationship,” Shanahan said. “All I’m saying is, I get along with Dan quite well. He’s been a very supportive owner, and hopefully I can win for him.”
Though he said he’d like to return, Shanahan sounds resigned to his fate. “What will happen at the end of the season, we’ll get a chance, Dan and I, to sit down and decide,” he said. “He’ll make the final decision what’s in the best interest of the Washington Redskins. I’ll give my opinion what I think. Obviously, he’ll make the final decision.”
In the meantime, Snyder is doing leaking of his own. Though you might be crazy to work for him — as Shanahan, Jim Zorn, legendary Joe Gibbs, Steve Spurrier, Marty Schottenheimer, Terry Robiskie and Norv Turner can attest — Snyder almost certainly will pursue Art Briles, the spread-offense godfather who created the Griffin monster at Baylor and has coached the explosive Bears into the Fiesta Bowl this season. It could be Briles is the only one who can rediscover the RG3 magic. At the same time, don’t be surprised if Snyder tries to fire Shanahan and withhold the $7 million owed him, which might be doable, according to the Washington Post, if Snyder can prove Shanahan leaked the story to ESPN and violated his contractual terms.
If a deal to move up in the 2012 draft for Griffin once seemed a steal for the Redskins, it has flipped into a heist for the St. Louis Rams. Remember, Snyder and Shanahan gave up three first-round draft picks and a second-round pick. One of those first-rounders is Washington’s in 2014 — which could bring Teddy Bridgewater or Jadeveon Clowney to the Rams. Gulp.
No wonder Jon Gruden wants no part of the job. “I’m just trying to do my job,” the ESPN analyst told ESPN.com. “I’m not going to address every little rumor or supposed conversation that takes place, according to these so-called sources. There are a lot of good coaches out there available to coach these teams.”
But Washington is a place where good coaches — and quarterbacks — go to die. As long as Dan Snyder is around, it is not a good place to be. “That’s not what the game is about,” Griffin said of the non-stop controversy while fighting back tears. “Constantly, I come to these press conferences and get asked questions about non-football things as opposed to football. It’s not the way the game should be going. When you are sitting there, 3-10, you partially understand some of it. But at the end of the day, there are other questions that need to be asked and other things we have to do. One of them is playing better.
“I’m getting frustrated now, and trying to hold everything back. Some things are allowed to happen, and we can cut a lot of this stuff out, and it is not being cut out. I don’t know what else I can do about that. I come to work every day. I work with those guys every day, and I go to war with them every day. It is very unfortunate, and that is all I can say about it at this time. I will be ready for Atlanta.”
In a ballcap, perhaps, waiting for Art Briles to rescue him.