ASHBURN, Va. — It takes quite the sales job to explain why a medically cleared Robert Griffin III won’t play for the rest of the season.
Embattled Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan realized that and gave it his best shot Wednesday, speaking passionately at times in a 28-minute news conference that included references to the team’s “circus atmosphere” and insistences that the move isn’t a ploy to get himself fired.
The upshot is that Griffin will be the inactive third quarterback for the Redskins’ final three games, behind starter Kirk Cousins and backup Rex Grossman. Shanahan’s reasoning is that he fears Griffin, who has taken a pounding in recent weeks, will get hurt, and that would ruin the franchise player’s offseason — a reversal of Shanahan’s oft-stated position that Griffin needed as much game experience as possible and would play to the end of the season.
“You’ve got to take a look at the risk and reward,” Shanahan said. “And with Robert I thought that his hits were piling up on him, giving him his toll, and I was afraid that we would set him back.”
Griffin, who publicly clashed with Shanahan at times this year, clearly wasn’t happy with the decision. He gestured, shrugged and shook his head throughout his turn at the podium, and he declined to answer when asked if he believes Shanahan’s rationale for the benching, saying: “At this point, I just have got to leave it up to Coach.”
“I expressed my desire to play,” Griffin said. “Of course, I want to be out there and finish the season with my guys, see it through. He explained to me his reasoning, and at the end of the day Coach’s decision is what we go with.”
Asked if he’d rather play for a different coaching staff next year, Griffin said: “I think that’s the general misconception, that players in our locker room want people gone.”
Still, the move only serves to stoke the turmoil surrounding the Redskins (3-10) in general and Shanahan in particular. The team has lost five straight, giving the coach his third season of double-digits losses in four years in Washington. It appears increasingly unlikely he’ll return for the final year of his five-year, $35 million contract.
Shanahan went into great detail about his decision to sit Griffin, to the point that he made a quote that he no doubt wishes he could re-word because it will rank high in all-time Redskins infamy: “What I’m trying to do is be as honest as I can. And I don’t normally do that.”
Shanahan conceded for the first time that his decision to keep an obviously injured Griffin in last year’s loss to Seattle cost the Redskins the game. Griffin had major knee surgery a few days later and was sidelined for all of the offseason practices, the kind of vital development work that Shanahan says he doesn’t want Griffin to miss for a second straight year.
Shanahan said he first broached the topic of benching Griffin with owner Dan Snyder last week, even though the coach has contractual say-so over all personnel decisions. He said both Snyder and general manager Bruce Allen offered their “100 percent” support.
Shanahan cited that consensus as evidence that he’s not trying to get fired. If he should resign, he would forfeit the final year’s salary of his contract.
“Somebody said, ‘Hey, the reason why you’re going with Kirk is you’re trying to get fired and get a year left on your contract,’” Shanahan said. “If I want to try to get fired, I’m not going to call up Dan Snyder and ask his opinion on a player (when) I don’t have to. And if he says no, I’m not going to go in that direction.”
Shanahan said he doesn’t discuss most player moves with Snyder, but he did so this time “because we’re going to have a circus atmosphere any time you make a decision like that.”
Nevertheless, Shanahan, whose regular season record is 24-37 in Washington, again conceded he might not return for a fifth season.
“I don’t know until I sit down with Dan,” Shanahan said. “Then we’ll find out what I think. I’ll give him my opinions, and he’ll give me his opinions. Maybe we just hit it off and everything and I get that 12-, 15-year contract.”
“Well, maybe three-year,” he added with a smile. “Whatever it is. That’s where grown men talk at the end of the year and you find out, ‘Hey, what’s the best way to go?’”
Snyder was not available for comment. A person with knowledge of the situation, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the matter, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that one of the options “on the table” for the owner is firing Shanahan with cause to keep from having to pay the final year of the deal. The person said Snyder is concerned that Shanahan’s recent actions have embarrassed the Redskins.
Griffin hasn’t been the same player who won the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2012. With defenses taking away the read-option, he has struggled as a drop-back passer, ranking 26th in the NFL in passer rating with 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
The lingering effects of the knee surgery cost him some explosiveness, and he is taking a pounding — 24 sacks over the last five games — but both coach and quarterback say Griffin is healthy enough to play.
Cousins has appeared in six games over two seasons, including a winning start last year at Cleveland while Griffin was injured.